Ferry Ride to Bukoba, My Low Point on this Trek

I told myself when I left Arusha that this trek around Lake Victoria wasn’t going to be a vacation.

It was an adventure.

I’d be okay with delays and discomforts; they were all just part of the experience. The upshot: this mindset allowed me to also be open to any opportunity that came along. And as if the universe listened to my decision, I was presented with the opportunity to float across Lake Victoria.

My man Daniel, the thin, young fella who had showed me around Mwanza, had an in with a cargo ship captain. The captain would be waiting for me in Bukoba the next day to take me to Kampala, Uganda.

***

Another early bus departure; another hours-long delay. The first was was at the Arusha bus station; this time it was along a city street in Mwanza. The Arusha delay was legal–the bus pulled over for speeding. This morning was mechanical–an engine belt, I discovered. I didn’t know which delay was more ominous. But hey, adventure travel, right?

At word of the delay, all of us passengers disembarked the bus that was squeezed into a small parking lot just off the street. As we all sat or stood on the sidewalk, enterprising street salesfolks came by to sell tea, bread, and store-bought cookies.

After a good ninety minutes, the bus engine started, the driver revved her up, black smoke farted out the tailpipe, and we were one our way.

Here was our route:

The highlight of the trip actually happened right away and served as a sample of what my upcoming boat ride might be like. Rather than go around a long, narrow bay, the route ferried over it–buses and all.

At the ferry port, rider exited while busses lined up to board the ferry.

Then we made our way in our own long line to the passenger waiting area.

Several nuns on this route. One nice Tanzanian nun sat next to me for the first chunk of this bus ride.

They served food in the waiting area as well.

I abstained.

Soon the ferry came and we watched people and cars disembark.

Then it was time for us to load up.

Off we went, floating to the other side.

Looking back

It was enjoying jaunt across the bay. I looked forward to the extended version from Bukoba to Kampala.

After maybe thirty minutes, we reached other side and then hopped back onto the bus and back on the road.

Hugging the fertile, rocky coast the whole way, and breezing through what could have been some interesting, old colonial mining towns, I had to choose whether to miss a good part of the action outside the window, or see it but then pay a physical toll. The busses here seemed to be engineered for children. The windows were interrupted with a broad crosspiece right at face height. To see out the windows, then, I had to hunch way over into awful posture that began to ache after several miles.

I got into a window tiff with the woman in front of me. She preferred it open. I would slide it shut to get the wind blast out of my face and body. Being absurdly low, I could almost lean right out of the window like the driver of a UPS truck.

Tight seats, bumpy roads, having to hunch over: riding these busses were literally a pain in the neck. But the views were nice.

The day before, I had told Daniel to tell the captain I’d meet him in Bukoba in the early afternoon. But what I was told would be a 7-hour trip, and an arrival by 1:00pm, ended up being an 11-hour ride arriving in the late afternoon.

As we made our way, I tried to call the captain. He didn’t answer. As we pulled into the Bukoba bus station, I tried calling the captain again. No answer.

Off the bus and with all my luggage, I wobbled over the lot of the bus stand into one of the bus ticket offices lining the lot. I enter the white tiled floor, livingroom-sized space of the bus company I had just used. I asked the two young men in street clothes standing behind the glass if they would offer me a refund for the tardy service. No luck. Then losing track of my adventure travel mantra, and getting tired of the lousy service in Tanzania, I said to them through the glass, “This is not how you treat customers.” But evidently, it was. No other passengers from the bus came in here to complain about a four-hour delay.

Thinking my phone was the problem, I asked these guys if they could  call the captain. But they couldn’t get through, either. Looking back, the whole thing had seemed sketchy, but this was just part of the experience I thought. Getting on the cargo ship was illegal, but Daniel said a lot of people do it. “There’ll be other Europeans on the boat with you,” he had said, adding that we’d play pool and have a great time.

I  mostly wanted to experience being on a big cargo freighter, see what this lake-shipping culture was all about, and then observe how the logistics and trade operations were performed between neighboring countries in East Africa. But it would all be just a fantasy unless I could get a hold of this captain, who had told Daniel that we’d be leaving early the next morning. I thought I might even be sleeping on the ship this night, but having not contacted the captain, and wanting a place to rest, I referred to my travel guide for a few hotels in town. Then I walked back out to the bus stand lot, hopped on a motorcycle taxi, and looked for a room.

The driver took me to a section of hotels along the lake edge, where at this part of Lake Victoria, the coast was a fine-looking beach of yellow sand and distant green shores across the bay. I went to a place recommended by my guidebook. This particular, five room tiny hotel could have been a quaint place on an idyllic beachfront if not for the drab conditions inside.

The worker, a tall, 35-year-old lady in a cobalt blue skirt, walked me a handful of paces away from her small desk to reveal a room with plain, large bed and plain bathroom. (An in-unit bathroom, which is a selling point.) It also had electricity. This is all I really cared about. But I did take notice of the conditions.

Electronic heater warms the shower water as is comes out. That is, if the wires aren’t disconnected.

The toilet seat was disconnected.

Then, unfolding the top blanket on the bed, I took note of the unwelcome life under the covers.

Ants

I walked out of the room and asked to see another. I knew this would be alright. I’m pretty sure I was their only guest. The tall lady in the cobalt blue skirt showed me another room with a bed that didn’t look as comfortable. But it was bug-free, so I said okay. There were other hotels in town. I could’ve spent a little more for them. But I didn’t want to. Nor did I really care. The cramped bus ride, the tardy arrival, me not meeting the captain. I was short-fused and downtrodden.

I lost track of my adventure pledge. Actually, I just didn’t care. Screw this adventure. I wanted to go home.

The next morning, I’d gain insight into why I was being so negative.

***

I awoke with a pounding head, stuffy nose, and chills.

An onset of illness had influenced my emotions. There was actually some relief in having something to which I could peg this negativity. But I also knew the emotions weren’t invalidated by the illness. Lonely and bleak. I felt stranded in this room in this ratty motel in this nondescript Tanzanian city. I had no energy to do the things I would ordinarily do to overcome the fact that I’m often alone in these types of situations.

No exploring; no interacting; not even in a hostel with other foreign travelers.

Emotionally and physically, all I wanted to do was be alone and rest–and get better so I could get on that ship. I called Daniel. He answered and said he would contact the captain. In my dark room on a saggy bed, I watched a movie on my computer. I actually published a blog, as it happened to be a Sunday. Bukoba was big enough to have half-decent internet.

While online, I was prompted to check out the website of a fellow writer. I saw the man as a peer in the pursuit of telling people’s stories. And his success is incredible–admittedly making me jealous at times. I hadn’t seen his work in awhile, and when I visited his page, I was shocked to see that he had become bigger than ever. His fans were in the millions. He had the backing of prominent, global organizations.

Meanwhile, here I was in the condition that I was–a condition made evermore stark when contrasting it with the success of this guy. It was a punch to the gut. But the punch was also backdoor inspiration. That’s what success looks like, Brandon. Reach for it. Get out of this room.

Having been holding out hope that I might still get on the ship the next day, I decided to let go of my expectations of Daniel getting back to me. It had been a couple of hours, and dropping that rock felt good. Daniel wouldn’t call me back anyway. I’d never hear from him, nor find out what happened to the captain. I didn’t have the satisfaction of even a whimper of a resolution. I got nothing. But the relief of looking ahead outweighed the frustration of lost opportunity.

I decided to get a ticket out of town the next day. I was sick, but this wasn’t a great place to be so, and I trusted that my health would start improving tomorrow. I left the hotel for the bus station offices. It was a good two miles away, and I had many motorcycle taxis stop to offer me a lift. But I declined, choosing to see the city on foot.

Bukoba is actually a lovely place. Out the back door of the hotel, the Lake Victoria beach is soft sand. Behind the beach and the coastal road sit lush green hills that stretch toward the city, making for a picturesque, geologic, naturally-refreshing charm. This city, like others in this country, are hideaways, a bittersweet product of Tanzania’s undeveloped travel infrastructure. Tourism has downsides, but more people should enjoy this place. And it would be nice to see the rooms of the hotel being used–after they are exterminated, that is. (Or maybe even after they bulldozed the building and started over.)

I walked past the beaches and hills and got into the city featuring blocks of one-story retailers and service businesses, many of them closed on this Sunday. I made by way to the bus stand, bought my ticket for the next morning, found a grocer on the way back to my room, and rested until leaving the next morning.

It was a rough 24 hours. I hoped things would start looking up the next day.

My hopes would be fulfilled when I entered Uganda…

 

Was it Right for Bloomington to Charge the Mall of America Protesters?

Under normal circumstances, a group walking out on the freeway to stop traffic or infiltrating the Mall of America to force a wing to shut down would warrant arrests and prosecution. But these aren’t normal circumstances.

Law enforcement often bends to make room for special situations. Until vandalism enters the picture, police allow unsanctioned celebrations of a team’s championship victory. Police didn’t crack down when youth in Washington D.C. congregated in front of the White House and cheered like crazy when bin Laden was killed. (Generally speaking, Americans just really like to celebrate, demonstrate, riot, protest, and the like.)

Crowds celebrated during early Monday hours outside of the White House.

Yet either of these types of situations pale in significance to the emotions boiling over for the last several months regarding race, class, inequity, and the people seemingly always on the short end of these sticks. So it makes sense that police have been restrained in their enforcement of the laws broken during the Black Lives Matter protests. Plus, making it more sticky is that law enforcement has been included in the target of protesters’ complaints. Thus, to enforce ordinances on public gatherings, trespassing, disorderly conduct, etc. is to risk adding fuel to the anger already burning these demonstrations bright.

For these reasons, on December 4 a group of about 150 protesters were able to walk onto I35 in Minneapolis and shut down traffic for an hour. The police didn’t arrive to arrest the protesters. They escorted them off the freeway with no legal consequence.

Three days ago, January 19, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 2000 protesters marched along University Avenue in St. Paul, tried but were blocked by police to enter the I94 corridor, and made their way to the Capitol, halting traffic and trains along University Avenue. But again, the police managed the demonstration without permit so as to not cause further delays or raise tensions.

Overall, law enforcement in the Twin Cities has avoided confrontation and has been flexible to the Black Lives Matter movement. This is what makes the arrests and criminal charges against protest organizers of the Mall of America gathering unique and controversial.

On December 20, a surreptitious gathering amounted to a reported 3000 people filling the Mall of America rotunda on the last Saturday before Christmas. Done in the same spirit as the other protests, this particular gathering was also inspired by the motivation to disrupt consumerism and to use the mall to increase the people reached as well as the volume of their message.

The clandestine gathering was necessitated by the fact that the Black Lives Matter chapter of the Twin Cities had been open about their plans to protest the Mall of America this day. But the mall, a private venue, communicated to protest organizers that such events were not allowed as a matter of policy regardless of message. Recognizing the circumstances, however, mall officials did arrange a space for the protest to occur in a parking space next to the mall. They informed the organizers of these arrangement and reminded organizers of mall policy and that a protest would be illegal and punishable.

The organizers responded by telling their participants how to enter the mall as to not be noticed. Don’t come in large groups. Don’t carry signs as bags would be checked. And at 2:00 pm, the huge crowd filled the rotunda to protest and share their message.

Security arrived, and while most protesters dispersed, a couple hundred held strong for a couple of hours. The remaining group was pushed out of the second story skyway into the parking ramp just after 4:00.

On January 14, charges that had been threatened were filed against 10 organizers. And they came regardless of a packed public hearing on the matter days earlier, where all but one or two community members asked the city not to charge the organizers. Some supporters went so far as to say if you charge them, charge me. #chargemetoo became popular on Twitter. Suddenly the prosecutor was under the same microscope as the protesters, and also like the protesters, ironically, depending on how you view her cause will determine whether you think she’s being courageous in the face of opposition or cruel as to continue to charge people for demanding equality.

From what I’ve read, most editorial media sides with the prosecutor dropping the charges, citing everything from her working for the Mall rather than the city, to the charges being political retaliation, to it being awful timing to charge a civil rights rally around Martin Luther King Jr, Day. At the same time, almost all the comments are supportive of the prosecution. (I’ve come to notice this liberal-conservative back and forth as common between writers and commenters.) They contend that the protest organizers trespassed, had caused significant monetary charges for police and lost business, and were warned against their actions but chose to go ahead anyway. Thus, they should be charged and convicted. Such responses may be considered either common sense or too simplistic an approach.

What do yo think? Clear cut case of illegal actions causing monetary damages or a situation where the law should bend given the extraordinary circumstances?

Mwanza: A Monkey-filled Hike to One Incredible View

Having by now showed me an abandoned (but not eerie) cemetery, as well as some locals living off the land tucked away in a small bay, and then the urban lake shore scenery of Mwanza, I was feeling pretty good about my new friend Daniel.

Adventure travel had struck again. And for second time in both cities thus far on this trek, I had bumped into a local young guy happy to show this foreigner around. Bumping into me my first morning in Mwanza, Daniel sported a bit of a ‘fro on his lanky frame. He dressed well with hip, white sneakers, jeans, and a white short-sleeve button-up highlighted with thin, blue stripes.

Now over a lunch of rice and beef at a streetside eatery, I shared with Daniel the next leg of my journey: taking a ferry from Mwanza to Bukoba.

Daniel heard me out and then offered me one better: the chance to cross the lake on a cargo ship. “Better” is in the mind of the beholder, of course, but I agreed that this would be a more interesting experience, as it would allow me to see a side of this region I’d never have the chance to view otherwise and was in line with the adventure mindset of taking the opportunities that present themselves–unorthodox they may be. Plus, I wasn’t too excited after having spoke to the passenger ferry guy about the overnight route that didn’t allow one to take in the beauty of the lake.

But there was one (actually there were a few catches) to the cargo ship. One was that it would leave from Bukoba. So I had to bus it again–something I was looking forward to avoiding. And I’d have to do so the next morning to meet the captain in Bukoba early the morning after.

I agreed.

The problem was that it cut short my time in Mwanza. Better squeeze in as much today as possible. Daniel helped me do so, finishing this day with an afternoon hike past a bunch of monkeys on the way up to one of the most incredible views I have ever laid my eyes on.

Enjoy the story, pictures, and video ahead.

***

All morning long, I had been commenting on how amazing the boulders were along Lake Victoria. But each time I did so, Daniel reliably–to the point of me knowing it was coming–would say, “That’s nothing.”

“How can THAT be nothing?” I finally offered incredulously while pointing to a massive, home-sized boulder in a middle of a green lawn.

Daniel pointed to that boulder and said that the largest rocks around here could fill the space between us and it.

A fifty yard wide rock?

“Please show me,” I said.

So he did. And not only was this the best place to see boulders, it also happened to be the best time.

Daniel and I took motorcycle taxis just outside of town–further beyond the home in which I was staying. Off the main road, down a smaller one, and then continuing to seemingly the middle of nowhere,  Daniel’s bike slowed and mine followed suit. He hopped off; I dismounted mine. And we started at a trail in the woods going up, up, up.

I knew this was going to be good. Such off-the-beaten-path destinations tend to be so.

Up the path, things went from dirt to rock. There was also the decoration of litter along the way. I was looking for a more lively ornament. Daniel had mentioned the monkeys. None yet as I started to breathe harder from the continued incline.

Hold on.

Daniel pointed to our right.

I first saw swaying trees. And then the causers of the sway.

The Vervet Monkey

The vervets would have been skiddish but for our peace offering: bananas, of course. I went closer to offer them a bite.

They were still skiddish, but their hunger overcame them. They’d come within fifteen feet to grab a morsel tossed on the ground. Male, female, adolescents, and babies; a band of these primates highlighting our walk to the top.

Dusk was approaching, Daniel warned. And we didn’t want to miss the view he promised lie ahead.

So we turned back and made our way to the top.

But first, some monkey footage:

Turns out the path was crude, because this was the back door monkey route known to locals such as Daniel. Now hopping up chair-sized stones, and with gratitude that it wasn’t the rainy season, we reached the top of the hill.

It was a flat of spotty trees, homes, and boulders of comparable size.

I followed Daniel along past buildings and residents.

Many folks made this their floor of elevated hard earth.

Past the homes and rising a bit more, trees gave way as did the soil. It was nothing but stone. We first approached a stone-on-a-stone-on-the-stone monument, standing for the wonder of the natural and eliciting awe for something so massive and daunting.

Yet it appeared precarious in its stance.

I thought I’d secure it.

Funny business aside, just past this, and fulfilling our goal of a sunset view, the rock floor rose to a level plane dotted with boulders and extending to a cliff. With the energy of a child to the tree on Christmas morning, each accelerating step of mine gripped on the rough, uninterrupted bottom. Indeed, as I walked along, and then looked back on what I had been walking upon for sometime, I realized this was the stone of such enormity warranting Daniel’s continued dismissals all morning at the “pebbles” I had been pointing out.

This one, solid chunk of stone had a surface that could be measured in acres.

Making my way to edge of the acreage, we were rewarded with the view for which we climbed.

To the right was the peak of this peak: an enormous, American home-sized boulder with flat rising top. Daniel and I made our way up this roof to the roof of Mwanza.

Above even the homes we had just passed through, I looked down not just on the magnificent Lake Victoria, but captured the entirety of this community amongst the boulders.

Both a contrast and complement of the manmade with the natural

The views weren’t impressive just out to the lake. Mwanza is a city and region sprinkled over a sea of rocky, forested waves.

Immediately below, boys played soccer in a dirt clearing.

Also from up here, we could look down upon the usual peak of this climb.

The “acres” of stone with “pebbles” dotted atop the solid rock hill.

Just as Daniel had been pushing me to climb to the top, so now was he saying we must be going as we didn’t want to make the journey down in the dark. First we inched our way back down the awkward sides of the our home-sized peak. Then I took a few minutes to walk about the main acreage some more.

The feeling elicited by the view, the lives amongst, and the stone beneath my feet encapsulated this part of the world and exclaimed its distinction from my own in Minnesota.

I had to hold out for one more minute from Daniel’s call to leave. I had to milk this moment. And up until the sun started to sink below the surface of the lake, I did so.

Please enjoy the footage of me getting to the cliff’s edge, walking on that narrow peak, and then the locals interacting with a foreigner and his camera:

***

On our way down, we descended the conventional path, a wide, stone natural highway shared by a few others here also coming down. As we made our way, stone became covered by dirt; the descent gave way to a level bottom with cars, people, trees, and buildings. Back down into a Mwanza outskirt, Daniel and I had a meal: potato wedges with eggs and beef skewers.

When done, we flagged down a bike for me. Daniel would walk home.

I thanked him for his service today. Then I thanked Daniel again…and again. To meet a resident so willing to share about himself, the city, and then show you the treasures within, is a gift difficult to overstate.

Adventure travel had offered me two such presents. I’d now test the adventure mode when leaving the next morning, which was before I had planned to depart Mwanza, in a mode of transport I was planning to avoid, but with the faith that an unknown cargo ship captain would let me ride with him to the neighboring country–and that there would be no concerns along the way or when we landed in Uganda.

First, I had to get to Bukoba.

 

Is Race Real?

Two books; two smart, well-educated writers; two entirely different opinions on race.

Nicholas Wade is a former science writer for the New York Times. He released his latest book last year called A Troublesome Inheritance, and it deals with genetics, evolution, and how humans and societies have been shaped by these factors.

He thinks race is a measurable and a legitimate distinction.

Then we have Robert Sussman, Anthropologist at Washington University, St. Louis, whose book The Myth of Race: The Troublesome Persistence of An Unscientific Idea was also released last year. Sussman argues against the idea of race, stating it as purely an invented construct.

(And there are many such books one could choose to exemplify this rift in academic thought. I simply selected these two.)

So how can two academics come to such opposing views on an issue? Well, the idea of race is complicated, and the perspective from which one examines the topic will determine whether they find the idea valid.

***

On one hand, aren’t there obvious differences between groups of people?

Congolese

Swede

Chinese

No one argues this, but on the other hand–where do we draw the lines? While the men above all appear quite different, there are populations living in places that straddle major geographic zones, and thus, such people appear not uniquely Caucasian, Black, or East Asian. Where do they belong in this categorization?

Uighur man, far western China

One analogy is color. All colors are on the same continuum, as are all humans. We recognize punctuations along the gradient as “red” and “blue” and so forth, but where does red end and orange begin? And are groups of humans as punctuated as colors?

Up to the turn of the millennium, and dismissing the opinions of those with bigotry as their motivation, this has been a debate in academic and scientific circles. And it has been as much a matter of a person’s categorical preference as it has been a matter of fact. (How many colors are there really?) Psychological tests and other secondhand results had offered implied distinctions between groups, but there was no hard science on which to rely. So there was a lot of room for debate.

Today, we have genetic testing. Hard science. Today, one would think, then, that we could solve the mystery. Indeed, both sides of the argument claim that genetic testing has done so in their favor.

How can this be? We can see the amount of any actual genetic divisions between people and groups of people. So how can there still be a debate?

There can because there are differences, but they are so small that people with the propensity to dismiss race can maintain their argument. And those who say race is measurable can point to those tiny differences. It yet comes down to how/if you deem it important to categorize the species.

Specifically, there are subtle differences that cluster the major human groups–notably Black, Caucasian, and East Asian. Of course there are other groups as well–Native Americans, Australian Aborigines–and depending on how fine you tune the measurements will determine how many categories you come up with. For instance, Indians become identified as the sixth “race” if you care to continue homing in on the data.

This lack of preciseness is what detractors of the idea of race point to as evidence that race doesn’t really exist–along with the truth that the differences between the supposed races are tiny. And they’re right. But does that mean such differences are meaningless?

A common misconception is that because humans are over 99.9% genetically identical, that to argue for distinction is silly. But humans and chimps are 96% identical, and the differences there are vast. Humans are also 88% identical to mice.

It doesn’t take much. But is there enough to categorize, and what’s the point anyway?

Where/how/whether you decide to draw lines isn’t going to change the genetic reality. But it is important, because the race debate tends to be a proxy for the argument of whether biologically-significant distinctions between populations exist–whether we call these groups “races” or not. And such distinctions can reveal useful information about a people’s medical needs, behavior, development; and can offer insight into a slew of questions regarding history, societies, and evolution.

Additionally, at stake with either side of the debate lay important moral and scientific aspects. Those who favor a distinction of race run the risk of putting walls between groups of people where none belong, and they risk perpetuating a mentality that can lead to stereotypes and a limited outlook of that which humans are capable. Those who don’t acknowledge the legitimacy of race tend to dismiss biological differences between populations for fear of dividing humans. This dismissal can prevent progress in the pursuit of knowing what makes a human, human. And this can lead to stunted efforts to understand, and thus, benefit all the peoples of the world.

The race/biological differences debate continues strong because of compelling data on either side. Look at the world and one can see obvious differences between populations in all manner of ways. But these differences lie both between supposed races, which supports the idea; but also between groups and individuals within a race, which undercuts the idea. Environment and biology interact in complicated and varied fashions, which allow any population to rise or fall–sometimes in sharp contrast to even their genetic and geographic neighbors. What’s probably happening with the authors above is that both men see the same data but acknowledge the elements (or even see the same elements in such a way) that supports their position.

I think the important thing to remember is to not get caught up in the semantics. Getting attached or resenting a particular term can sway the reality of what the numbers show. Humans are who they are–a result of individual and group choice dependent on genetic and environmental influence, regardless of whether/how science categorizes them. We ought not let our particular leanings blind us from the data and the truth for what it is.

Mwanza: A Huge Lake, Freakishly Large Birds, and a New Friend

I awoke, did one of those looks back and forth where the eyes dart but the head stays put.

New room; new city in Tanzania.

A new city to explore.

And I would do so this day to discover gardens along huge Lake Victoria tended to by locals, tan boulders the size of cars (and trucks) (and buildings…) piled along the coast, an old graveyard of old Germans, a fish market, and then a hike through nearby woods past monkeys eager to eat my food and then up to a cliff overlooking the lake for one of the best views I’d ever have the pleasure to absorb.

I hopped out of the single-sized bed, which necessitated lifting up the fine-mesh mosquito net. I threw on a pair of khakis and a t-shirt. It was a small room–but with a carpeted floor, a dresser, and a closet, it felt as familiar as any in which I might find myself in the U.S. I was batting 2/2 in finding lodging by way of the web community, Couchsurfing. And like Arusha, this was the house of a young couple in Tanzania.

Andrea was a Dutch physician here for a two-year project working on maternal health. She liked to dress in long skirts and sported a headscarf wrapped around her hair. Her boyfriend, Joseph, was a thin, dreadlocked, patchy-bearded Tanzanian Rastafarian. He worked with the runaways and street kids of Mwanza, helping them find accommodation and then with developing a work skill. They weren’t your usual couple, but they seemed a darned good one.

We had tea and bread at their round, wooden dining room table to start the day and then walked out the living room door to their Toyota SUV in the driveway. They were headed to work. But first they’d drop me off to explore Mwanza.

Andrea and Joseph lived about two miles outside the city center along a main road heading out of town. Driving under the blue sky, we passed residential areas, then some businesses, and always lots of other cars. An impressive-looking new mall was under construction to our right. Andrea spoke of it with mixed feelings. There are many reasons one might like/dislike a new development. Here in Tanzania, I’d heard this particular “dislike” before: that such development takes something pure and genuine away from the neighborhood and city. This desire for the authentic went so far as to inspire a friend in Iringa to experience and then admit to me her mixed feelings about my village getting electricity. The artificial lights at night and the noise of radios would detract from the quiet and the natural, she thought.

Looking back at the new mall in Mwanza

Also to our right, just shy of the city ahead, was the reason this city was here at all: Lake Victoria. Past the mall and then through some lakeside trees and shrubbery was a plain of blue glass within this municified bay. Here at the apex of the curved shore’s meeting with the road is where I started my exploration.

***

Andrea and Joseph drove off, and it was just me and Mwanza. Sometimes one feels lonely when in a populated area, not an acquaintance around. But it’s also true that when this solitude occurs in a place so new, far, and different from one’s home–with no attachment or relationships or expectation with anything or anybody around–that a complete detachment and the novelty and wonder and exploration of this new world disallows any negative thoughts.

Positive and ready to absorb, I began.

Between the road and the water was a boulevard of gardens being tended to. At this particular place, I’m guessing were a mom, dad, and their boy. Dad walked to the lake shore to gather buckets of water, Mom watered the sprouting vegetables, and the young boy kept himself entertained as children do.

Father getting water. (See footage from this garden at the bottom of this article.)

View along the coast

I continued, and the gardens went from growing edibles to aesthetics.

Watering a flower gardem

And here is where the city center began.

Past this bright, clean part of town, I entered a section of small stores and a narrowing road. Suddenly a young man approached. He was thin and dressed in white sneakers, blue jeans, and a dark blue-striped plaid short sleeve button-up. He had an even, half-inch head of hair, but also murky eyes and an uncertain expression.

My instincts told me here was a guy looking for a handout or soliciting to be my guide. But this idea was swiftly supplanted by what I took to be a genuine friendliness. And having just experienced the kindness from my buddy, Innocent, back in Arusha, I thought that this young guy might be a similar example. (This sort of thing happened in China, too. Some guys approached to sell you something; others were just interested in getting to spend time with an outsider. I’ll be forthright and admit that I think this was the case because I was Caucasian–and “better” yet, American. I found that while the U.S. has taken a hit in the last decade regarding its moral standing and economic dominance, East Africans largely seemed to yet consider America as the stereotype of good living and the leader of the world.)

His name was Daniel, and he walked beside as I wandered without direction. Daniel would soon suggest one, and remembering my adventure mindset, I took his lead. He asked me about my life, education, and work. In his fluent English, he said he was a studying engineering in Johannesburg, South Africa. He said he had a girlfriend from Sweden–and that they had a daughter. His girlfriend helped him pay for school, he said.

By now even the small stores has disappeared, and we found ourselves along a road headed toward a quiet nook at the edge of another bay. The road ended and a trail began that we took over a dirt mound and into a woodsy area dotted with gravestones. It was an old, not-well-kept cemetery of Tanzanian and German deceased. Tanzania was a German colony 100 years earlier. Their stint into colonization was ended by WWI. But for a few decades, Germany made their presence known and some came here to live and pass on.

A couple of locals used this brushy, graveyard flat as a place to hang out. They were residents in a large city with mindset of villagers. They set up a little shelter, did laundry along the shore, which was just a few more yards ahead, and took a canoe out from this rocky, grassy lake edge to catch a meal.

Turning around, a steep hillside impressed me in its beauty as rocks and green foliage decorated its side.

I was also impressed to see a trail zig-zagging its way to the top and homes right on the hillside like Hobbit’s homes in the Shire.

A small barefoot man in jeans and t-shirt approached to ask if I wanted to pay for a tour. I declined. I did ask him, “Are you worried about rocks falling on your homes?”

“It’s not easy for stones to come down,” said the man as Daniel translated it back to me.

Daniel and barefoot man

We left the way we had entered, went back about as far as we had met, and then took a new direction along the coast in a different part of the bay where I began my day.

Here, the natural was tamed for city living. Land between the sidewalk and the lake was a manicured lawn.

Then, the green lawn was replaced by the activity of fish sales. Along this stretch of shore, white metal coolers opened to reveal their abundance of tilapia. A good dozen of these independent operations sold their catch. (Footage below)

Finally, we approached a place where people cleaned and cooked the fish. And here is where I got my best look at the remarkable birds I had been spotting all morning.

They are called the marabou stork, a freakishly large bird, whose head would approach man’s sternum. So plentiful and tame, they walked about like pedestrians. Only these half-vulture/half-stork-looking homely animals acted as beggars who didn’t bother to ask. I guess that made them thieves.

Daniel told me they were protected, so hurting them was prohibited.

They were a wonder to view. So large and with such strong features, they were a highlight for this morning’s wander along the coast. (See them in action in the footage below as well.)

Later this day would be monkeys and a cliff’s view overlooking the lake that was so beautiful, it would be difficult to put into words. Good thing I took pictures…

***

Now enjoy the clips from this post. (And if you’re enjoying these articles, please share via the social media buttons up top, refer the pieces to a friend, or simply let me know. Comment below or write to me at brandon@theperiphery.com. I’d love to hear from you.)

On the (deadly) Road to Mwanza, Tanzania

“Here is it,” said the guy standing next to me at the busy Arusha bus station.

Finally.

It was the morning of September 18, and after the joy of waiting for two hours watching hoards of other Tanzanian travelers getting on their on-time buses, I was relieved with the tardy arrival of mine.

I needed to remind myself right away this day that this was an adventure, not a vacation.

The guy who said this to me had a table set up outside selling bus tickets. He had been in contact with my bus, which was a mild relief. At least I knew I didn’t miss it and that it was on its way. It was simply delayed, he said—by police.

“What for?” I asked the guy.

“I don’t know,” he said.

Hmmmm. Sounds fishy.

Boarding the bus, I asked the young man conductor (the guy who hollers while hanging out the door when passing through towns along the way to find new riders) why they had been stopped. Angry at the delay, perhaps I wanted to know who to blame. Curious about life here, I was certainly interested in knowing if this was a shakedown for cash or a legitimate stop from the men and women in bright white uniforms, who stand alongside  the road at checkpoints to make sure you’re obeying the laws.

“Going too fast,” he said to me.

Well, shakedown or not. I could see the silver lining of enforcing a reasonable speed. At this point in my time in Tanzania, I had surmised that bus drivers must have strong legs–’cause they have to walk around with their lead feet. (Badum, ching!)

I walked to my seat about ten rows back to see a heavy set young woman in mine. I showed her my ticket. She shook her head. She wanted the window, she was saying by pointing out it and speaking Swahili with a smile. I understood. I wanted the window, too. I just pointed at my seat again. She shuffled over to her aisle seat. I squeezed by her and snuggled into my own.

Tanzanian buses are cozy, I’ll give them that. But on my previous ride to Arusha things were so tight, I’d get a scab on my knee. And in all the buses the windows were low, requiring me to hunch over to see out of them.

On this particular ride, I got to share this experience with my seat neighbor, Rachel.

Off we went to Mwanza

It wasn’t the most direct route, but the one the bus takes to hit other stops along the way.

***

We were pushing mid-morning by the time we finally got out of town. Pouring by out the window were the dry, open flatlands punctuated with the occasional hill. It reminded me of the American West.

Only an hour into the ride, we stopped.

Bathroom break.

No bathroom, though.

No problem.

Recall your rural roots, Brandon, and find a couple of trees to shade your relief.

Hmmm. Not many around.

No problem to these folks. Pee out in the open then.

Well, the guys did anyway. The ladies were lady-like and found some bushes.

When in Rome.

I had to go, too. And who knew when our next stop would be?

Setting back out, the remainder of the ride mimicked the one I had taken to start this trek three days earlier.

We slowed for other towns.

Schoolchildren returning home for the day

We stopped for gas.

We stopped at bus stations, where salespeople ran up alongside the buses to sell their items.

But mainly, it was the open road.

Baobab trees

If only the driver heeded the speed limits…

As much as I wanted to get to Mwanza lickety-split (I kept having to text my host, pushing back my arrival), the speed bumps along the way were killing me.

I’ve read that speed bumps in neighborhoods back in the U.S. actually cause more harm than good. The lives they are estimated to save by slowing down cars are exceeded dramatically by the lives they end because ambulances and fire trucks are forced to almost stop for them when responding to an emergency. My argument against speed bumps in Tanzania came from erratic driving on account of them. They weren’t installed in residential areas. They were installed on highways. In the middle of no where, while I was watching the terrain glide by, the driver would break hard, we passengers would all lunge forward; the bus would barrel over a speed bump, we’d all get slammed into our seats; and then the driver would accelerate like he was in a race (or as I figured, trying to make up for lost time for having to slow down), and we’d all lean back.

The commonality of these disruptions got to my head, and I began anticipating them. They seemed to occur every few miles in an attempt to keep these driver’s driving sane. But if the speed bumps helped, the help was undermined by the speed drivers went between them and by the potential for injury falling out of our seats. After several of these, and me forgetting this was an adventure and not a vacation, I yelled out, “Please slow down!”

They may not have understood the words, but I figured they’d know I was upset. A few miles later, another violent bump. “Slow down!” I repeated from my seat ten rows back. The conductor asked me to sit closer to the front as by now some other passengers had disembarked in stops along the way. I wasn’t happy about this suggestion, as I assumed it implied the bus wasn’t going to stop hitting the bumps like this. But I did what they suggested, and I think the driver did cool it. So in a weird way, I guess the speed bumps did slow the driver down, but only with the addition of a complaining passenger.

But it’s going to take more than speed bumps to quell these crazy drivers. They simply use speed bumps as an obstacle to their regular ways. One just wishes they change these ways. Upon me sharing about my ride to Mwanza, my hosts there would tell me of a recently-reported highway tragedy. On one of the main roads in the region, a bus tried to pass a car but met an oncoming bus head-on. Each were filled with passengers. Each were driving high speeds. 60 people died.

A story like this in the U.S. would make national headlines. Here in Tanzania, it merely came up in a conversation. The regularity and extreme nature of highway accidents was something I’d note whenever I was on the road. Coming from Tukuyu in the southwest part of the country, I saw three accident aftermaths. One was startling. The semi-truck cab in the ditch looked like it had been through one of those car compactors at a junkyard. Then in Iringa, my home base in central Tanzania, I heard from the foreign medical students about the bodies coming in from an accident involving a truck going off the highway and into a crowd.

In Tanzania, one could worry about the reports of malaria, lion attacks, and armed robberies. But I’m betting I was most at-risk when away from all that in the comforts of a bus.

This is an adventure; not a vacation.

But even given all this, the chances of accidental death is low. And many, many foreigners I met in all parts of country happily make Tanzania their home. This went for English teachers in Iringa, for businesspeople in Dar es Salaam, and for my host in Mwanza, who I met the night I arrived.

***

Sun setting on my bus ride to Mwanza

After about ten hours on the road, combined with that two-hour delay to start, the sky had darkened by the time we saw the first signs of Mwanza. More traffic, constant lit-up buildings along the road, and the buildings’ increase in size and modernity. I called Andrea, my host whom I had met online via that same web community of travelers/hosts called CouchSurfing. It’s how I had met and stayed with Manu back in Arusha. Andrea was a 25-year-old Dutch physician who came to Mwanza to work. Tanzania is a nation with no shortage of opportunities for medical professionals to come and offer a hand.

Andrea said to me on the phone that her boyfriend would come pick me up from the bus station. But which one? She had her boyfriend speak to the conductor, who then knew where to drop me off.

“He’s Rasta,” Andrea said to me right before we hung up so I’d recognize her boyfriend. Interesting. Leah, my Coloradan colleague back at my village school also had a Tanzanian Rasta boyfriend. You may think it’s weird that I’d meet two Rasta guys in East Africa. Actually, I met a few others, and I’d see dozens of them during my year. Rastafarians and Bob Marley were popular here.

I disembarked and waited for a few minutes alongside the Mwanza city street with nearby gas station and businesses that were closed. They were old, plain, concrete two-story buildings. Underneath me was a sidewalk uneven with slabs of concrete tilted.

Soon a small SUV pulled up.

“Hello Brandon?” said the young man from his rolled-down window.

“Yeah.” I responded and started to lug my luggage toward the vehicle. He parked, got out, and the thin, 5′ 8″ Tanzanian with dreadlocks, scraggly beard, and dressed in jeans and a saggy t-shirt helped me with my things.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Joseph,” he said in a way that resembled a Jamaican accent, but maybe that was my Rasta stereotype implanting itself in this situation. And did he say Joseph?! That was the same of Leah’s Rasta boyfriend. Weird.

I hopped into the SUV, and Rasta Joseph and I drove off to meet with Andrea for dinner. My time in Mwanza–Tanzania’s second-largest city on the gorgeous rocky coast of Lake Victoria–had begun.

***

And here’s a look at some footage from the day:

2014: The Stories and Moments of Our Year

2014

Or as it was known to the Armenians: 1463

Or to the Berbers in Northern Africa: 2964

The Korean calendar had it at 4347.

The Hebrew calendar split between 5774 and 5775.

The Shaku Samvat Hindu calendar puts us back in the “30s”: 1936-1937

Meanwhile the Ethiopians considered the year 2006-2007.

Despite global use of the Gregorian calendar (the one we use), there are many other regions and people of the world that maintain their traditional calendar as well. No one has a monopoly on counting the years–it’s just that the Gregorian calendar has been assumed as the choice to unify the globe.

Whether 2014 or 4347, how were your past 365 days?

You probably had all sorts of highlights, lowlights, and a lot of days and moments that mostly blend into the ether of the past. We realize this blending when picking out of this ether a particular time or event and then recalling how we felt while it occurred.

And we realize the quantity and variety that we’ve experienced the last year when breaking it down into the seasons, months, weeks, weekends, and days. At this point last year, I was….  How about around Memorial Day last May? Or Labor Day in the fall?

Graduation, new job, marriage, death, birth, divorce, move, travel, promotion, break up, lost weight, work project, new coworker, new boss, new car, new dog, cat, fish, plant, flatscreen, vacuum cleaner. A fishing trip, a trip to Target, playing golf, playing Candy Crush, a night out with friends, getting that speeding ticket, helping your child with their homework.

From the noteworthy to the everyday, there was a lot to our 2014s.

If each of us have our own highlights than certainly  as a collective, the world will have its doozies. These are for all of us to share. And I’m sure they will trigger some emotions–some “oh yeahs”–from you as you read the following.

***

The Highlights of 2014

Remember back last February? A few worldwide events started in this month.

On a good note, February 7 saw the kick off to the 22nd Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Perhaps you watched some of the skiing, skating, or bobsledding.

Perhaps you watched the news around the time these Olympics wrapped up and caught the not-good news in Ukraine.

 

Nearing the end of February, and not too far away from these Olympic games, actually, unrest surfaced in Kiev.

As has been the history of this border region, the protests in February were motivated by the popular disapproval of the way the nation’s president was leaning the country. Pro Russia or Pro West? Ukraine is torn, and it ripped apart in 2014. Such protests and the police response occurring in mid-late February left over 100 dead. The president was removed, but while he may have fled, others entered: the Russians. They annexed parts fo the nation. Most notably, on February 27, pro-Russian forces seized the administration and government buildings of the island of Crimea.

Within days–practically simultaneously–Russia went from hosting an event of global diplomacy and friendly competition to invasion and takeover. This would be an ongoing conflict addressed by political heads of all the Western world.

 

While all this was going on in Europe, about 3800 miles southwest of here, a biological threat was born that would also warrant worldwide attention. The first Ebola cases were diagnosed in West Africa.

Late August in Liberia

The influence and impact from these events would be felt throughout the year. Time Magazine would go on to call the people fighting the front lines of the Ebola outbreak as their Persons of the Year. Here on The Periphery, we’d name our own individual with the most influence. Our Human of the Year went to Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin.

 

On March 8, a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board lost radio contact and was never seen again. To this day, it is presumed to be at the bottom of the Indian Ocean. This would be the first of a few airline tragedies in 2014. In July another Malaysian airlines flight would be felled by missile from actors in the Ukrainian conflict. And, just days ago, December 28, an AirAsia flight crashed into the Java Sea.

 

In the U.S. in April, there was a stand off in the wild west. Federal officers rounded up rancher Cliven Bundy’s cattle in Nevada for grazing on federal land.

With federal agents and supporters of Bundy brandishing firearms, negotiations took place to eventually have the cattle released to Bundy.

[This story was interesting for a number of reasons. First, each side of it can be spun to a compelling degree. One side reveals that the cows had been trespassing for years, so they were finally attended to by the feds. The other sees a government confiscating property based on unjust laws, and so are abusing their authority and in effect taking as they please. 

Second, despite the case the rancher and company made, newspapers revealed their leaning when cartoons predominantly sided with the government. Bundy and his militia men were easy targets

Third, Bundy is known for having an extreme anti-federal government view. I think it's amazing that him and like-minded fellows were able to quell the government's activity--at gunpoint--by demanding their rights and Bundy's cattle to be returned. Then again, I'd later find it amazing that Black Lives Matter protesters could walk out onto freeways and block traffic for hours, and that many of them would do so as law enforcement simply sat back and watched. 

It was a year of protests in the U.S. (and elsewhere). It was also a year where these protests seemed to reveal a law enforcement willing to bend.]

 

June saw the rise of ISIS, the Islamic State, in the Middle East. Out of the ashes of U.S. led conflicts and the Syrian Civil War, this armed and determined group continues to hold sway in their efforts to create an Islamic fundamentalist state despite the subsequent re-involvement of the American military in the region.

 

As in February, the world stage in June and July was used for sports.

The World Cup took place in Brazil. It ended in July with Germany taking home the Cup.

 

On September 18, a peaceful attempt was made in name of independence and statehood.

Scotland was given the chance to vote for independence from England and the United Kingdom.

By a 55-45 margin…

…they voted against it.

William Wallace was shocked to hear this.

 

September and beyond saw protests in Hong Kong, when citizens there became angry at China’s limits on democracy.

Speaking of democracy, Americans voted in November. Midterm elections in the U.S. saw Republicans take control of the House and Senate branches of the federal government.

 

Leaving the planet, November also saw the European Space Agency land a probe…on a comet.

 

In December were the Black Lives Matter protests as mentioned before.

 

Finally in December, the U.S. announced the normalizing of relations with Cuba for the first time in decades.

Want to go to Havana anyone? That would make for an interesting 2015 getaway.

***

Such a review reveals the richness of experiences going on around the world. But you don’t need to land a probe on a comet to realize the excitement and beauty of life and all that is around you.

From the thrilling to the mundane, here’s to the blessing that is the chance to make 2015 your best year yet.

 

p.s. Here’s the #1 YouTube video of 2014

 

 

Views of Mt. Kilimanjaro: Goodbye to Arusha and Hello to a New Adventure

Walter Mitty was introduced to the world in 1939 by writer James Thurber. In Thurber’s short story, Mitty is a dreamer, not a doer. And his fantasies attempt to compensate for his lack of real life adventure and accomplishment. He never does find fulfillment. Not only do his dreams fail to replace reality, but his real-life struggles and insecurities inadvertently infect his dreams.

In 2013, actor Ben Stiller starred and directed in a modern version of the story. He played Walter Mitty, an employee at Life Magazine, whose dreams of outside-the-office adventures are inspired by the photographs he sees in the pages of the magazine. He finds the images of a particular adventurer particularly compelling, and lo and behold, Stiller (Mitty) is tasked to go find this adventurer in Greenland.

This take on the story adds the distinct element of allowing Mitty to live out his fantasies of adventure. And it was this idea of adventure that inspired me when I was in Arusha.

***

I followed my new friend Innocent along the sidewalks of the suburban-like section of the city. Bigger and broader roads, parking lots, and buildings–and the buildings newer, nicer, and designed to attract the tourists. We walked past a couple of clothing stores to our right and then this mini-mall made way for the “Walmart” of East Africa, Nakumatt. We entered it to get some food.

Inside the brightly-lit, spacious and modern retailer, I stopped to see the electronics for sale along the left hand side as you entered. Playing on a loop on one of the fancy new flatscreens was the trailer for the movie, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” In snappy, trailer-like fashion, it showed Stiller’s Mitty jumping into a freezing ocean, boarding a large ship, hiking through snow-covered mountains, and meeting interesting and incredible people directing his mission along the way.

In just this handful of clips, I was inspired by the notion of living in that rhythm of being on an adventure: open to and seeking out the opportunities around you, participating in activities that you’d normally miss or turn down, and doing so with a belief that there will be no dead-ends on this path. For this rhythm has a way of beating on.

This is counter to the idea of what most people normally live by, because when we domesticate, we replace such opportunistic openness and adventurism with a priority on plans, security, and certainty. And these are likely influenced by the fact that we now have people (family, coworkers) who depend on us. This is true whether at home or away. You can’t just up and leave your job at a moment’s notice. Nor can you abandon your family when traveling just because a good opportunity arises.

But a single guy on the road has no such concerns.

Having been a bit weighed down and prevented from fully enjoying this trek in East Africa, I realized that my only restriction was my mindset; and happening to just pass by and notice this looped trailer revealed how I had been leaning too much on security and certainty thus far. I was turned off by a tardy bus at the outset of this trek. I was angered by my luggage getting soaked from the rains we drove through entering Arusha. (In the trailer, in fact, was a clip of Stiller dropping his bag in the ocean.) And then I was concerned about money, because on my budget, I knew I wouldn’t be able to spend as freely as I would have wanted.

Inspired to flip my attitudinal switch to the adventurous, I suddenly realized how little I had to be concerned about. I had my plane ticket home already paid for. And I had enough money to get to Nairobi from where I’d fly home. There was literally nothing to worry about unless I chose to to do so about a lack of emergency fund. Emergency fund. This thinking was anathema to the spirit of adventure.

So I asked, “What adventures will take me to Kenya?” And as important, I reminded myself this wasn’t a vacation. A vacation would have been spoiled by the conditions on the ground. But an adventure recognizes such conditions as part of the fun. I committed to this travel philosophy which life had been hinting at and offering me a taste of when introducing me to Innocent, who in turn, introduced me to camel rides and the Maasai Tribespeople.

And with this mindset, the opportunities I will share in the weeks ahead include visiting two slums in two cities, getting to teach at a slum school, and taking a canoe out to see a fish farming operation on Lake Victoria. East Africa is a land of adventure—of randomness, of living for the day, of being okay when things don’t go your way or when things aren’t all nice and comfy. And I was ready for the adventures ahead.

The next step was getting to Mwanza. Actually, the next step was seeing Mt. Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest mountain.

***

On a clear day one can see in the eastern distance from Arusha the icon of African topography. Many come to climb her, but for about $1500 to do so, this view would be as close as I’d get.

Mt. Kilimanjaro, almost exactly 50 miles away

To get to this view, I asked Manu, my Chilean Italian world-traveling host about the best place in town to see Kili. He recommended a hilltop just a walk away from his home. So my final evening in Arusha, just before that reliable 6:00 pm equatorial sunset, I started my way along the dirt roads and then the fields gradually elevating to this hilltop.

While there I took a couple of more shots.

Mt. Meru, Tanzania’s second-tallest mountain, appears to dwarf the distant Kili.

Like looking into the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls, I tried not to think too much, but just let the beauty of a great natural marvel sink in. Though distant, this was still Mt. Kilimanjaro, the tallest point on this incredible continent and the place I’ve heard so much about before and during my time in Tanzania. I looked at Kili and felt wonder–and loss; of imminently leaving this place I may likely never see again. This was an awaking to the sadness of mortality and things being gone forever.

As darkness approached, I cherished each step I took down the hill with an invigoration for my time in East Africa. Comforts and emergency fund be damned.

***

The next day I had to wake early to catch a motorcycle taxi to the Arusha bus station. As the sun rose, so did the level of activity.

Testing my dedication to my new adventure attitude, my bus was two hours late. While waiting, I sat on a bench and played with my phone. I also worried about being late to the place I planned to meet my new hosts in Mwanza. My rigidity was rising again. I thought to break away from the isolation and bought some bread and tea from a lady nearby selling to other riders. I enjoyed them until the bus finally arrived.

Depending on how I faced these unexpected bumps in the road would determine my appreciation for this part of the world. When I maintained a malleable idea of where I wanted to go/what I wanted to do, I’d be shown remarkable slices of life unseen by the other tourists in Land Rovers heading to and from their four star hotel and the safari parks. And when I stayed open to the idea that this trek was an adventure, I’d face the inevitable inconvenience and discomfort as simply being part of what makes an adventure memorable and livening.

This would be my travel philosophy–and it was a good thing, because there would be many literal big bumps on the road ahead to Mwanza…

***

Finally, to see that which inspired my adventure spirit, I found that movie trailer on YouTube:

My Experience with the Black Lives Matter Protest at the Mall of America

I had heard that the Black Lives Matter movement was going to hold a protest at the Mall of the America on Saturday, the last big shopping day of the year. Several of the Black Lives Matter chapters in various cities were staging similar protests.

Having not done my Christmas shopping, I had actually planned on the going to the mall this day anyway. When I heard about the protest, I thought I might catch it. I drove up at around 3:00 to see a slew of brown state patrol cars parked up along the curb of Killibrew Drive in front of the mall. I heard a helicopter overhead.

I found a parking spot in the ramp and walked into the ground floor of the west side entrance. I had read that guards were going to check bags, so I wasn’t surprised to see security in yellow vests at a table just inside the door. But there was no sign of protest.

An older gentlemen guard with white hair said he needed to look in my bag. I handed it to him, and he looked inside and squeezed its contents from the bottom of the bag.

“Okay,” he said.

“Were there protests here?” I asked.

“They’re still going on.”

“They are?”

“Yeah, over on the east side straight through.”

Straight through I went, walking by hundreds of holiday shoppers who seemed totally oblivious to any protest that had happened or was happening just across the mall. A Hispanic family holding hands walking along; an old Caucasian couple–grandparents perhaps, buying gifts for grandkids; and a Somali woman working at the amusement park in the center of the mall.

Making my way through the amusement part to the east side, I was greeted with this:

The mall rotunda was now empty. The protest was largely over. This is a zoomed in image. Otherwise, you’d see directly in front a row of security guards. They weren’t friendly old men in yellow vests, but stern-looking men and women in white shirts and black baseball caps. I asked one of these women about the blockade.

“This area is closed. You have to go around,” she said.

And I wanted to do so, because now I could hear the chants and jeers of many people. Up on the second floor, behind the blue warning screen in the picture above, you can see the remaining protesters.

I headed out and up to the second floor, getting as close as I could:

Protesters to the right of the man’s head

Nearby sign

Next I went outside to try and see the protest outside-in. I walked along the sidewalk near the east side parking ramp in front of the mall. As I approached the entrance, I saw riot police in a big circle blocking the street traffic as well as preventing people from going inside. A concerned woman was on her phone wondering how and where to get back inside to meet someone.

Other than her, there were a couple of other angry people in front of the inaccessible entrance:

Knowing the activity was happening directly above, I walked back to the parking ramp and up the concrete steps to the second floor skyway entrance. This was where the protesters were being pushed out. Inside the skyway, bystanders stood around with cameras while security guards prevented people from entering the mall. This was the outskirt of the activity just inside. Within, a dense crowd spoke loudly, at times in unison. These remaining protesters were being slowly exited from the premises after having been warned for at least thirty minutes by police. Soon some started to trickle out of the doors. But instead of leaving, they now remained in the skyway to address the guards.

Here’s where we should stop for a second.

I think for the sake of understanding, it’s important to know that our and others’ feelings about this and similar incidences around the country differ depending on how (or how much) we empathize with that which these folks are protesting.

Though the protesters use what many consider false evidence to support their movement (hands-up gestures used this day are based on unverifiable depictions of what happened in Ferguson), it’s important to recognize that the issue to them isn’t just about what happened in Ferguson. Nor is it just about the Garner death in New York. These were simply the pivot points. Most are here because of the larger issue these examples represent. And if you deem this cause  worthy–that the protesters are trying to make Americans aware about a broad social injustice occurring under our noses and harming the lives of millions–then their breaking the law (in the face of several warnings not to before and during) is brave and commendable.

However, if you see the Black Lives Matter cause as suspect or disingenuous or even baseless, or if you just think that it’s not worthy of this kind of uproar, then you’re going to see the laws they break as an offense and that all this senseless havoc needs to be stopped.

Courage or trouble-making–our tilt on the issue, motivated for any number of reasons, determines how we see it. It also determines what we see. If you empathize with this scene, you’d notice the impassioned African American man pleading for a better life in the U.S. If you don’t, you would have recognized the stereotypical, anarchical white youth with the blue bandana over his face. Ultimately, I think our reactions come down to the main issue of how bad we think the system is stacked against the black community–and how much we think this “stack” is cause for their struggle.

Knowing this distinction might better allow people who disagree the chance to know where each side comes from.

Eventually, the police came out of the mall and made everyone clear the skyway. Once everyone was in the parking ramp, the remaining protesters dispersed.

I entered the mall by walking back around to the south side, where they were letting people enter. Getting inside, half the mall remained a ghost town until they made sure all signs of protest were gone. When security got the clear–about 30 minutes later–this side of the mall was opened after being shut down for what I’d estimate to be about two hours. Good thing. I still needed to get gifts for Mom and Dad.

***

To reiterate the point above, I remember watching the Ferguson riots and pointing out how such a scene will further polarize the nation. Those empathetic to the anger might have thought, “See, this is what racism does to a nation.” Those not empathetic may have reacted with, “And these people complain that the police are always after them? Look at them, for God’s sake.”

Once in a while you’ll meet a stranger who sees both sides.

As I initially walked up to the scene of the protest from outside the mall, an African American guy stood just off the sidewalk tucked inside the parking ramp taking drags off of a cigarette.

I saw him, walked up, and asked, “So what do you make of all this?”

“Man, I just wish they wouldn’t get like this.”

“Are you talking about the police or the protesters?”

He said people had a right to protest, but that he didn’t like what was happening at the mall.

“Did you come here to shop or to check out the protests?”

“I’m just here on my way home. I don’t want to go near there. I’ll watch it tonight on the news.”

“This is a transit stop on your way home?”

“Yeah, I just came here because I had to pee.”

He couldn’t get to the bathroom because of the protests. So he waited outside killing time with a cigarette.

“What do you think of the Black Lives Matter movement overall? Do you sit back and root for them?”

“Yeah,” he said.

He then shared about an experience he had back in Chicago, where he is from. “I put my hands on a cop once. He knew my mom was dead and he said, ‘F___ your dead mom.’ So I grabbed him. I shouldn’t have done that, but he said that about my mom.”

I was impressed he hear him say this. Most would want to grab someone who said that about their mother. But it turned out that his avoidance of this protest wasn’t because he was against the protesters but because he was leery of the police.

Wanting to know his thoughts on the broader issue, I asked, “What do you think causes the struggle in inner-city communities? Is it the larger system these communities find themselves in or the communities themselves that cause the problem?”

“Both.”

Someone who had experienced the ugliness of the system–of what sounded like a bad cop—didn’t put all the blame on it.

In fact, he didn’t seem to blame the police at all. Regarding the system, he said he blames the few people getting rich while everyone else is poor. “The one percent,” he argued.

Reiterating my question earlier, I asked, “Do you think that it’s this system that is to blame for the struggles in these neighborhoods, or do you think that the people themselves have some control over their circumstances?”

“Both.”

Then he turned to go.

“What’s your name?”

“Ronald.”

“I hope you find a bathroom.”

***

I don’t think we have enough people saying, “Both.” The problems facing the black community are said to be the fault of “the system” or “those people.”

The truth is 1. This is a systemic problem of blacks being looked down on and treated worse in general, and then this problem exacerbated in law enforcement by a police force trending toward the militant. 2. But these perceptions didn’t come out of thin air. When the largest cause of death to a young black male is murder, it’s easier to normalize homicide in this community. When blacks have more than double the violent crime rate than whites (and much higher yet compared to Asians) it’s easier for cops and the public to draw conclusions–and then overreact. These stereotypes, along with chronic economic and educational disparities, perpetuate these problems. Chicken or egg? I don’t know if it matters. The point is that both need to be addressed.

This marks a problem with the Black Lives Matter movement. It recognizes only the external factors and makes taboo the idea that problems can be a result of the choices one makes. By arguing that the challenges in the black community are entirely the fault of someone or something else, they send the message that until the system changes, blacks are powerless to improve their lives. I think they need to hear the opposite. They need to be empowered and inspired and perhaps told by their community leaders to make better decisions with their lives. Don’t drop out of school. Don’t have a child if you aren’t ready. Or as a student I taught did, don’t punch someone out and take their bike. To whatever degree the element of choice enters into a tough situation, it needs to be encouraged.

Cities like Minneapolis have already done a pretty good job addressing the external by offering many great social programs, spending a lot of money on schools, and putting diversity policies in place. While it’s true there’s always more that a city and a society can do, none of that will matter if the people in these communities continue make the same choices. We also need to acknowledge this other side of “both.”

***

 

Introducing the Maasai: Tribespeople of East Africa

One more image in my mother’s mind that troubled her when I left for Africa was that of the technologically primitive tribe. She found their lifestyle interesting but didn’t want her son around their idols and whatnot. For the most part, she’d get her wish.

That being said, it is easier now more than ever to check out these tribes. One can go to Tanzania or Kenya and pay for what is called “cultural tourism.” Sounds nice, and it is a way for these groups of make money. Like any commercialism, though, authenticity becomes worn. You pay to visit a Maasai village of their traditional mud/wood/grass huts; you eat their food; you watch them perform a ceremonial dance, which may be more theater than authentic; and if you’re up for it, you can even stay the night and experience sleeping on their hard, earthen beds.

I wasn’t too interested in this, though. If I’d experience the life of these societies, I’d do it more conventionally.

Who are the Maasai?

The Maasai are perhaps the quintessential tribe you think of when you think of “a tribe in Africa.” They are a semi-nomadic people of the plains of northern Tanzania/southern Kenya. They are livestock herders. They mainly wear red or blue cloths as a shawl or wraparound and sandals. They make their own jewelry, which some of them wear generously. They have their own language, which, like their lifestyle, is quite distinguishable from the others in the region. Finally, the Maasai are also often distinguished in physical attributes. They are taller and thinner than most others in the region.

Maasai man (Wikipedia.org)

The Maasai are a tribe, but it’s important to note that so were the people in the region in which I lived for most of my time in Tanzania. There, the people were the Hehe (pronounced “heyhey”). And when I visited southwest Tanzania, around Tukuyu and Lake Nyasa, we had the Nyakyusa tribe. And then around Mt. Kilimanjaro and the city of Moshi in northeastern Tanzania is perhaps the most famous tribe in Tanzania, the Chagga. Like the peoples of Europe, each tribe has its own stereotyped behavior. The Germans are known as industrious. The Hehe are known as warriors. The French are romantic. The Chagga are entrepreneurial.

Each tribe has their own language used locally in addition to the national language, Swahili. Each tribe has their own spin on food and farming and clothing. I thought coming to Tanzania that the tribes would be less defined, replaced by a national identity. But these tribes have staying power, and the gravity of your people (which is strong for people worldwide) seems particularly strong here and keeps members orbiting their land their whole lives.

It was big deal what tribe you were. There wasn’t any controversy or rivalry that I could sense, but it meant a lot to ones’ identity and was asked of fellow Tanzanians when the occasion was appropriate. A few of my students emailing their penpals in the U.S. asked their adolescent penpal if people in the U.S. had tribes. The question fascinated me. I was also asked this more than once and would say that when people came to the U.S., they largely forfeited their tribal identification for that of a national one.

All this being said, the Maasai yet are distinguished as a tribe from almost all the others. The vast majority of tribes in the region live along a continuum of technological complexity, but all seem to be on the same continuum. The Maasai, though, choose a lifestyle of technological simplicity. Its in their cultural script to do so. Cell phones are the rare exception, and it seems a clash to see a Maasai herdsman walking along with his 70 goats on the Serengeti plain in his sandals, red cloths, and a cell phone at his ear.

Today, I share this story of the Maasai not just because this is the best chance on my travels in Africa to write about such a people, but because in addition to fleshing out some details you may already have assumed, this is also a chance to share some of the traits that you might not have thought of.

***

My man Innocent now wanted to show me an outside-Arusha attraction. As seen in the last two Sunday posts, he had already helped reveal Arusha commercial custom and city highlights.

Innocent, my new friend in Arusha

This day was to feature some regional wildlife, and unexpectedly and more impressive to me, it also demonstrated the lifestyle of the Maasai by way of a small museum and nearby Maasai goat sale gathering.

After meeting at the food market, Innocent and I hopped in one of Arusha’s (and all of Tanzania’s) most popular mode of transport, the van “buses” known as a dalla dalla. We crammed in with the other riders as was customary and took it south of town on the well-built two-lane highway out to the airport. In only a few minutes, peppered with frequent stops for pickups and dropoffs, city life was behind us as the one-story stores and homes lessened in frequency. Soon there was as much field as there were buildings. And then at one stop, Innocent directed me to disembark.

We hopped out of the van and had to cross the open road in the middle of the open, Arusha/Serengeti plains. On the other side and up the road a hundred yards, was a complex of properties within a cluster of trees. At its front stood a safari SUV and a sign that read “Snake Park.”

Walking toward Snake Park, I also saw across the road a large, open area surrounded by a six-foot concrete wall. Through an opening in the wall, I could see a gathering of men in red or blue cloths.

A Maasai gathering

“A goat sale,” said Innocent. While the anthropology-interested part of me wanted to gravitate toward this scene, Innocent and I continued to that which we came to see. And interestingly, on top of the cool reptiles inside, there was also a small museum Maasai life (Innocent never mentioned this.)

We entered the walled-in driveway beyond that yellow sign. After 50 yards, it opened up to a cluster of brown-red painted buildings, the smallest of which was our starting point:

Inside and to left opened up to a reception counter with a tablet computer affixed. It played a looped video of snake bite victims being treated. Venomous snake bites are no joke. After paying admission to the lady there, Innocent and I wandered into the Park, a half-a-football field-sized area surrounded on one side by glass-walled, snake-filled cages. There were also a few birds in large cages, and then spotted throughout the ground were low-walled pens for turtles, crocs, and other lizards.

Here are a few shots:

***

With the Park behind us, we walked across the drive toward a long, red-brown building with big white letters painted on the side: MAASAI CULTURAL MUSEUM.

We entered the unlit space to greet a young Maasai man who had an abnormally large amount of hair compared to most other Maasai I had seen–men or women. He was great guide, explaining in detail the scenes to come.

Our guide

The museum was a zigzagging hallway winding back and forth with a new scene of Maasai life presented around each corner. One scene depicted the stages of life  with statues (like the ones seen in the picture above) of toddlers, adolescents, parents, and elders male and female. Another scene depicted a cow bleeding–the act of puncturing a cow in the neck to drain some blood, cover the wound so that it heals and cow is fine, and then take the warm, deep-red fluid and drink.

They puncture the cow with an arrow.

One more scene (of which there were 5-6) demonstrated a rite of passage into adulthood: circumcision. There was a depiction of a young teenage boy with legs spread and adults attending to the procedure.

And there was a like scene of women over a girl.

These scenes revealed much, but I also had many questions to fill in the blanks between these static depictions.

“Can a Maasai man marry a white woman?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “But not many do.”

I asked about religion.

“We pray to God, but not Christian or Muslim. Though a few are now.”

They have no preachers, he said. There is one Maasai tribe, but many clans, each with a leader who acts as judge.

All clans use the same Maasai language.

Their homes are basic and don’t have electricity, so they charge their phones with solar chargers or by going into town.

“Are there rich Maasai?” I asked

“There are. They have many cows.”

And many wives. Innocent would later tell me, “You can find a Maasai man with 15 wives, and each wife has five children.”

Some Maasai do live in cities with modern amenities. The Maasai members of Parliament for instance, said our guide.

One more depiction in the museum was of a young man proving his manhood by way of the traditional rite of passage: killing a lion.

“We can’t do that anymore,” said our guide. “Tanzania doesn’t allow.”

“Are you upset by that?”

“Yes, I don’t like.”

“Well, what about killing a zebra?”

“Zebras are not dangerous.”

“Oh, well what about killing a snake?”

“Snakes are small.”

The tour ended with a souvenir shop of t-shirts and jewelry behind a glass case. Next, we were led out to see the camels.

***

I thought I had seen the most awkward, large animal in Africa when I went on a safari and spotted several giraffes. And maybe they do take the crown. But I never got to ride one. We walked further back in the Snake Park campus to a field with two camels eating hay and a few Maasai guys hanging out and around a couple of straw-roofed huts.

We were led to the camels and up we went:

It feels like you’re going to fall off.

Thanks for the ride!

Finally, we went to the goat sale still going on–visible and easy to get to from the camel pen.

After a handful of shots of the commerce and socializing, it was time to get back out to the road and back to town by way of the next dalla dalla that came by.

But first, I met an old Maasai woman willing to pose:

You may think she’s unhappy, but I’m telling you, this is the normal elderly Tanzanian pose. Smiling for a photograph isn’t customary. Maybe if I joined in I could get a smirk out of her.

Yeah, we’ll take that as a smirk.

***

I think there is a romantic idea that comes to mind when people in the Western world think about the Maasai or similar tribes–wholesome, earthen, genuine, humble, meditative, and connected to life in a way that we with our technology and fast-paced lifestyle miss. I think these attributes are accurate. I also think that distance and inaccessibility from this society gives them an almost legendary quality, and coverage that I’ve seen of the Maasai from National Geographic and elsewhere seems to perpetuate this notion.

But the truth is that more than the ways they are different, are they the same, just with their own versions of religion, marriage, law, and celebrations. And I think a more even-handed view of the Maasai–not to be feared for their ways, nor absolved of their controversial practices–would be best. They hold down boys and cut them. They hold down girls and cut them. Women are offered as possessions in exchange for cattle. If these activities took place openly from a society in the U.S., this society wouldn’t be looked at favorably anymore.

It’s a fine line between respecting the traditions of a people, respecting their freedom to do as they please, but then asking or demanding them to change some of their harmful practices. But while humans wiggle through these issues, the bottom line is that we can celebrate that our species exhibits and offers such an array of experiences to behold. The Maasai people have largely kept their ways alive into modern times, and we’re all the winners as they help to stretch the boundaries and potential of the human experience for all.

I’m grateful to have learned about and seen the Maasai people in action this day.

***

Next time we’ll leave Arusha and make our way to the stunning lakeside and boulder-strewn coast of Lake Victoria in Mwanza, Tanzania.

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