Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Cape Town!

Travelers who are reading this well know what it's like to re-enter "civilization." I call it re-entry, like a space shuttle plummeting back to earth.

Early morning Maputo, I scurry onto the bus and start to cram my pack in the overhead rack. A man tells me calmly that I don't have to do this. I look around and there are only eight people sitting on a 53-pax bus. And this bus is so clean I feel ashamed because the shirt I'm wearing is the dirtiest thing on it. I must hide my utterly filthy tote bag under the seat.

The last border to cross is between Mozambique and South Africa. Illegal immigration into South Africa is a major issue, and here I walk through a no-man's land of razor wire, klieg lights, and barriers that resemble Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin during the Cold War. It's awesome and there are no money changers to block my way.

Once in South Africa, the road now feels like silk under the bus, and at a food stop, instead of a swarm of vendors pounding on the windows, there are fast food outlets and a mini-mart. No dust; no belching black smoke.

I stay in a guest house in Pretoria, and for the first time in months, I cannot find a flaw in the bathroom such as: water flooding the floor from the toilet/shower/sink; no hot water; no cold water--only scalding; no water pressure; no water; no light bulbs. I marvel at the plumbing here. I take a walk on broad sidewalks where I can hold my head up without fear of breaking a leg by falling in a huge hole or tripping over a random piece of rebar or concrete sticking up. However, I still can't quite command a entire line of cars to come to a screeching stop when I step off the curb like in California; but crossing the street here is slightly better than cars/motorcycles/bicycles accelerating into me as I run across the street like a hunted gazelle, which has been typical of the entire continent.
Fortress America in Pretoria. Next door is the Indian embassy built of brick with an open veranda.

And then there's the food: I can find things that aren't soaked and cooked in a gallon of cooking oil. If cornflakes were a wonder yesterday, today I'm eating muesli with yogurt, honey, and fruit.
After 2 1/2 months of African travel, you can imagine what it's like to eat a breakfast like this. And there are four kinds of sugar in the cup.

Suddenly this all saddens me because it represents the end of the journey, and this is a depressing thought. Immediately I start to think of the next trip and a new itinerary to return to this fantastic continent with its kind and gracious people.This trip has barely scratched the surface. I see a world map with so many more pieces of the puzzle that need fitting in.

The World Cup is still everywhere in South Africa.

In Cape Town I spend the first two nights at a wonderful and utterly charming guesthouse (La Rose) around the corner from this street in Bo Kaap, the Malay/Muslim district. It's fantastic.

And then for the final splurge, two nights across town in this bed with a bottle of wine. This is not Africa; this is another planet.

It's over :-(

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

From Tete to Maputo

I walk to the middle of a monumental suspension bridge to take a look at Tete. The Zambezi River, of course, is the setting for one of Dr. Livingstone's most famous expeditions. He was convinced that bringing commerce up the river into the interior would also bring Christianity to the Africans, thereby ending slavery and superstition. In the books, historians call him a failure on many accounts. I dunno, but maybe these academics should put on some dirty clothes, leave the file cards at home, and come stand on this bridge. The commerce is sure going on: trucks are lined up for miles on end waiting to cross the river with goods for Zambia and Malawi (and I would say Zimbabwe except it all goes to Mugabe there). And go up the road to Malawi and check out the Christianity effect there; it's huge. It just all didn't happen in Livingstone's lifetime, that's all.

Surreptitious photo of Tete taken from suspension bridge over the Zambezi.
An even more surreptitious picture of the bridge. Shhh, police aren't looking.

As for superstition, that's still a whole other layer of culture. On BBC Radio this evening, I hear of a Tanzanian sting operation that arrested a Kenyan for smuggling an albino into the country to sell to the witch doctors for body parts. Albino murders are a big problem the Tanzanian government has been somewhat successful in stopping. And back in Rwanda, I read reports in the newspapers about young children found dead in Uganda with their tongues missing--attributed to the witch doctors.

So here in Tete I consider my options. I can either take a bus to Johannesburg through Zimbabwe and Botswana for 24+ hours, retracing a route I've already mostly done in the 1990s, or take the bus to Maputo, Mozambique's capital, which takes up to three days done in stages with early morning departures at between 3-6am. And the chapa drivers tell me, while smirking and shaking their heads: "road is very bad." I'm not that much of a masochist and decide to just get the hell out of here and fly to Maputo.

In Maputo I try one backpackers hostel for a bed but it's full (why is it half the backpackers in these places lie around looking like they're on Quaaludes?), but across the street is the Hotel-Escola Andalucia with decent rooms, a reading lamp next to the bed, a full length mirror (horrors! major renovation needed once home), and corn flakes (!) at breakfast. The staff actually makes up my room--another first I haven't seen in over two months.

The school is on the corner of Patrice Lumumba and Salvador Allende, and nearby streets in the city are named Mao Tse Tung, Ho Chi Minh, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Vladimir Lenin. Oh, and there's Kim il-Sung! And even a Robert Mugabe, destroyer of Zimbabwe, plaza. I'm looking for Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, or perhaps a Pol Pot to complete the pantheon. Along with the AK47 on the national flag, you would imagine a public relations challenge, but I think eventually the names will have a sort of retro hipness, and the newer generation will have no idea who any of these people are. Meanwhile, commerce is thriving on these streets.

Mozambique, so far in my very superficial visit, is worthy of a far longer stay and a road trip up the coast to Mozambique Island to do it justice. The blending of African, Swahili, and Portuguese culture here is fascinating and unlike anything I've seen on this trip. In Maputo, the food is good and the music a huge improvement. Leafy trees, outdoor cafes, and a great gelato place make me hate to leave.
The 100-year-old train station in Maputo

Monday, August 16, 2010

Malawi to Mozambique

Lilongwe is not a bad place for a day or two to catch up, but I press on. Six hours on a bus take me to Blantyre, a city named after Dr. Livingstone's home town in Scotland. The most interesting part of the day is that the road runs right along the Mozambique border. In one town, one side of the street is Malawi and the other side Mozambique, with no barrier, barbed wire, or immigration post.

Blantyre, although the setting is pretty, has a vibe of not being safe, plus it's freezing. I put on all the clothes from my backpack to sleep. Lake Malawi and the odd game reserve are the reasons people come to this country (unless you're Madonna adopting another baby), but really, not when you can see your breath.

I head to Mozambique and the town of Tete, located on the map toward the Zimbabwe side. Tete has the fame of Mozambique's hottest town. It's also supposed to be such a hardship post that even the missionaries didn't want to come here.

I show up at Blantyre's bus station at 7am and score the front seat next to the driver of a van going to the border. This is ideal because a) I don't have people squeezing past me every minute and b) I can control the volume of the radio when the driver's not looking. Today's selection is full on Christian music since it's Sunday. I also, for once, get a good view of what's ahead. There aren't that many cars in Malawi, so the chances of being in the front line of a head-on collision are minimal. Driving along, it's not unusual to see coffin builders along the roadside, a cottage industry that probably sprang up when AIDS hit Malawi. I also see very few older people, but babies are all over the place. My guidebook says life expectancy here is 43 years.

For three hours we drop and pick up passengers--always kicking up dust in the process. I've started wearing a bandanna over my mouth and nose, looking like a cowboy driving 50,000 head of steer across western Texas. This helps from getting dust sickness. And today's produce that's being stuffed in the van is tomatoes. One guys comes in with heads of lettuce, another with spring onions, and together the van has a pleasant salad smell.

I'm finally dropped at the border, and here come the money changers. I talk to one guy who quotes me something ridiculous, and I walk off to the Malawi immigration. The officers in this country could certainly learn some social skills from Dickson back in Tanzania; the woman here throws my passport back at me after flipping through a few pages and tells me to find the entry stamp myself (yeah, OK, I do have a lot of stamps).

Finally processed, there is a five-kilometer no-man's land to cross. Really decrepit cars ply the route. And here's the classic African scene: Five guys escort me to the next taxi leaving, but the front and back seats are full. I point this out to them, and frenzied discussion breaks out with everyone. And here comes the money changer guy, offering me more money. I yell at him: "you tried to cheat me back there and you know it. I have no confidence in you and for all I know, your money is fake. Goodbye."And in the next breath to the driver: "Look, there's no room. None. And obviously, these passengers don't want me in there because no one is squeezing together, and I know they can do it. I will wait for the next car."More frenzied discussion, and some people are pulled out. Now there's room in the front. The other guys get in the--and I'm not kidding--in the trunk. It has occurred to me more than once while traveling in Africa that the barbaric ways they used to pack the human cargo on the slave ships isn't that far off from how they pack the matatus, dalla-dallas, buses, and whatever else transports people here. They're good at it.

Anyway, on the Mozambique side, immigration is polite, and another pack of money changers closes in like hyenas with their wads of money and calculators. Too late--I changed money with the immigration officer.

Welcome to Mozambique. A matatu here is called a chapa. This one has a dirty looking Bugs Bunny in an athletic outfit hanging by one ear off the rear view mirror. We stop every few minutes and it's the usual vendors of ears of corn, bananas, peanuts, and Coca Cola pounding on the windows. Notable though, is one kid with skewers of some grayish stuff to eat. I can make out eyes, surrounded by wisps of either feathers or fur. I have no idea what these are and thankfully no one buys any to bring inside the van.

A few hours later I'm in Tete. Bad news is that the few hotels are completely full. "Tete is growing; many people come!" One place makes a call and finds me a place. I'm not sure if it's a hotel or has a name, but it's run by an Indian family and my accommodations are immense. The father even has his son drive me around to do my errands. Gotta love the weirdness of travel.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Making Tracks Across Africa

A look at the calendar makes my heart pound. Only two weeks to hurry down to Cape Town, and there is some serious distance to cover. The whole concept of "hurry" is laughable here in Africa. You just do the best you can and good luck.

Back in Dar es Salaam the Tazara railway, built by the Chinese in a year unknown to me, slices a path across southwestern Tanzania and all the way into Zambia. No cheetah express this, twenty hours take me to Mbeya, not too far north of Malawi, and it's not too bad a ride. The train staff do their best to keep the train tidy; a chicken and rice dinner in the buffet car is one of the best I've had in months, and the waiter even comes by with a bowl of hot water and nice liquid soap with which I wash my hands. The train groans and lurches, and people come and go in my four-berth compartment throughout the night. The weather has changed, too, from the hot and sweaty coast to freezing cold. I spend the morning chatting with some Zambian girls who are studying nursing in Tanzania.

Speeding across Tanzania

I overnight in Mbeya with yet another chicken and rice dinner that requires a hacksaw to get through. The hotel registration form asks me what my "tribe"is. I think about this for a while and decide the next time I see this I'll write down Californian. That's the closest, I think I am to a tribe. At 7:30 I catch a decrepit mini-bus to Kyela, which is right on the Malawi border. This takes over three hours. The road climbs up and up and up--into fog and freezing rain. People keep packing inside, and if there's any space left over, why the guys can heft in some humongous sack of onions or potatoes or apples or anything else they feel like moving down the road. At a town halfway along, most people get off, but there's a new crowd who wants on. I hear increasingly frenzied yelling going on outside. It seems some guys don't want a few others to board. They pick one guy up in the air and throw him so he hits the ground in a hard thud--literally. We speed away. The bus stops at the border, which is still a good three kilometers away. A hundred money changers meet me off the bus, and the only "taxis" are bicycles. I hire two: one guy to ride with my pack and another to carry me down the road.

My bicycle taxi (the other "driver" is off changing money for me).

Another border crossing, and by chance I meet an Irish NGO who needs to backtrack into Malawi to find dollars for a Tanzanian visa. He gives me a ride to the next town where I find a bus ready to leave for Lilongwe, Malawi's capital. I hop on for a twelve-hour jaunt down the length of the country. Essential equipment for any African bus traveler is a set of ear plugs to help drown out the non-stop, earsplitting music and videos (ear plugs also work when you have a particularly noisy group of touts to maneuver past. I never see people complain here; they just take it. The drive along Lake Malawi is beautiful, but soon it becomes dark and cold. I find a hotel in Lilongwe at 1am and pass out.
Lake Malawi taken from a dirty window on a speeding bus.

More roadside Malawi. They're selling French fries.

Monday, August 9, 2010

To Zanzibar

I take the ferry to Zanzibar, surely one of the most evocative names on the east coast of Africa. Its rich history of trade, Omani sultans, and the jumping off point for the great 19th-century expeditions against a backdrop of Swahili culture deserves its UNESCO World Heritage status. In many respects, the historic center of Stone Town is a fantastic place, but I must look past the neglect, trash, and dereliction to imagine what must have been. Like parts of Havana, Cuba, incredible architecture is turning to rot. Some restoration efforts are going on, but not all will survive. In the 1970s the government, during its failed socialization experiment, redistributed many of the structures to people with no vested interest in protecting anything, increasing the downhill slide into deterioration.

The shell of the old courthouse looks ready to fall over.

View from my hotel rooftop.

Now, Zanzibar has made a pact with the tourism devil, and this has brought prosperity at a cultural cost. Package tourists fill the beach resorts, and I see hoards of western college types, with boobs bursting out of tank tops, cracks showing, and who are loud and foul. What must the deeply Islamic Zanzibaris think? And neither of these groups of tourists are particularly friendly.

To compare with Lamu up in Kenya, here you flop on the beach and swim in the divine Indian Ocean. In Lamu, which is smaller and more intimate, you stay and write a book.

Tourists are swarming about and rooms are tight. Because I've spent little during the last month and I face a few weeks of hard travel ahead, I splurge on my last day. For the same price as a Travelodge in San Francisco, I end up in the presidential suite in a former palace. There's no reason to go out the door.
This is just one of my rooms.
Before I leave the country in a few days, I must comment on the extraordinary kindness of the Tanzanians. A case in point, the immigration officer back on the border between Burundi and Tanzania sent me an e-mail a week later, saying: "hi! madam it's me Dickson Mwanyasi an immigration officer at manyovu land boarder,i would like to extend ma warm greetings!where are you now?have you already departed to zanzibar? have a nice tour enjoy a lot, happy"

Can you imagine that happening in Europe or the US?

A Few Days in Dar es Salaam

En route to Dar es Salaam I meet an American girl who tells me that she's staying at the Free Pentecoste Church of Tanzania Center, and she thinks accommodations are open to anybody. This is great because I have no idea of where I'm staying. Everywhere is booked and way overpriced. I luck: I get a huge room with hot water and breakfast for $13.

Dar es Salaam isn't all that bad. Much of the old Indian/African architecture remains from my 1973 visit, and life appears to be thriving. I wander around for hours. The occasional plonker approaches me on the street, but I shake them off with little trouble.

The center where I'm staying attracts missionaries who are coming from/going to/or revisiting sites around the country, and they all offer fascinating insights into aid efforts in Africa. They pretty much confirm my suspicions about what I've seen the last few months. The NGOs have developed into a multi-billion dollar industry with fat salaries and not-too-shabby lifestyles for the administrators. Their overwhelming presence in some areas serve to drive prices up, which hurts the local people they purport to help. You can always spot the NGOs: they nearly knock you down in the street as they scream past in their shiny Toyota Land Cruisers. In Kigoma, where there aren't that many streets, I start to recognize several of them that just go back and forth.

I like the missionaries. The doctors spend several months a year with hands-on work in the villages (childbirth complications are big) and fight an uphill battle against deeply ingrained superstitions and witch doctors. A German missionary couple I meet have spent nearly thirty years in community development, encouraging the Africans to come up with ideas to dig the latrines or patch the roofs themselves instead of waiting for someone from the outside to do it. Money is not the answer, they say, but a change in attitude. For example, jealousy: parents often resent their children if they reach a higher level of education; or a nearby village or petty government administrator is jealous if a village improves its prosperity. That kind of thing. And then there is the problem of corruption which exists at every level.

Related are the squads of first-time Africa and terribly naive volunteers who pour into Africa like a wildebeest migration during the summer. I've talked to dozens of them. Usually college or high school students from the UK, US, or Canada, many tell me they've come because it looks good on a resume or college application. After a few weeks--followed by a safari or beach vacation--they return home with everybody feeling good about themselves. No impact is left on the Africans because the fundamental problems still exist. One student from the UK arrived with 1500 condoms. His task was to train teachers, who would in turn teach how to use them. His training in this was minimal, he said. And my favorite for the Darwin award was a Canadian guy who craves that "Africa scar him in some way," so he's not taking any anti-malarials. I ask him why he can't go out and mugged instead.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Killing Time in Kigoma

No meeting is more famous between travelers than that of Stanley and Livingstone in Ujiji, not far from the shore of Lake Tanganyika. Ujiji is just south of Kigoma, with any dalla-dalla (Tanzania's version of the collective mini-van stuffed to the gills with people) passing by. A fifteen-minute walk from the highway takes me to a barb-wire-topped fence surrounding a stone monument. A plaque, donated in 1927 by the Royal Geographic Society, marks the spot. Nearby a mango tree said to be graphed from the original of Livingstone's time, completes the scene. Another plaque across the way designates that captain Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke passed this way, too, during their expedition to determine if Lake Tanganyika was the source of the Nile. Note, to get in the fenced area, you must pay the "museum" across the way.

Mission accomplished. The next task is figuring out how to get out of Kigoma. My original intention was the train to Dodoma. It runs once a week, and I'm in luck that it runs today. However, they've done away with the sleeping cars and 50,000 people have pressed into the station to board the third-class only cars. Um, I pass on this. The bus takes some days through dust (only 25% of Tanzania's roads are paved, but they say they're getting better all the time) to get across to Dar es Salaam. This passes through the Serengeti National Park, but I'll have to pay a hefty entrance fee, and this is not exactly how I'd like to see the Park. I pass on this, too. I look for an airline office, but the electricity is off. And since Africa hasn't made the complete leap into the electronic world, I am issue a handwritten ticket.

The power goes off in Kigoma regularly, or the water doesn't turn on, so it's important to take advantage of electricity or water when you've got it. Power goes on--start charging your iPod. Here comes the water--shower immediately. I found an Internet cafe here with the fastest connections since leaving California. And with really nice laptops!! (This is a big deal for the traveler in Africa).


Blitzing through Burundi

Rwanda probably has the nicest people I've met yet on the trip, and hardly a walk out the door doesn't result in people approaching me just out of kindness, but onward I must go. Most people from here back track through Uganda and Kenya to get to Tanzania. I'm on the bus south to Bujumbura.

Burundi is not many years coming out of its own Hutu/Tutsi civil war. All reports say the country is somewhat stable but to be careful. Burundi also enjoys the title of the most corrupt country of East Africa. And sure enough, at the border I meet my first corrupt border guard. It's nothing too unpleasant though--more a case of a stupid, barely literate moron. I'm out less than 50 cents. I should say every border official I've encountered so far has been extremely kind and welcoming.

So, Burundi. For the first hour I think: "Call up the heavy equipment operators. This place needs some serious bulldozing." A Rwandan tells me this is how Rwanda looked before the genocide. Any truck we pass usually has several bicyclists sitting on the cross bar, while hanging on the truck with one hand--like remoras--black fumes belching out over them. Women, on the other hand, look like they've stepped off the pages of National Geographic. And everywhere I see the flag of some political party: a bird with a machete in its claws.

We descend out of the mountains and see Lake Tanganyika in the distance. I doubt Bujumbura sees many tourists these days. I lodge for the night in what must originally have been intended as a honeymoon suite (embroidered sheets, bathtub on a platform) in an atmospheric town hotel. Restaurant service reminds me of a 28.8 modem: wait and wait and wait, and then maybe a fork appears and then a glass--only to get something you don't really want. Step out in the streets however, and whoa. Casualties of the war come honing in around my legs. Missing limbs, missing hands, missing feet--some on children. Intense stuff here.

Anyway, years ago the best way to travel between here and Kigoma in Tanzania was to take a boat. Those days are gone. Now it's good luck even finding information on how to travel south on public transportation. I think it's possible, but it means waiting out the weekend, and the trip is dicey at that So I hire a driver. A Canadian girl on my bus is traveling with a Rwandan, who has a Burundian friend, who has a friend, and so on. The evening turns into a council meeting, discussing my situation. The thread goes from Emily, to Yannick, to Kevin, to David, and voila (!) Modeste arrives in the morning to drive me to the Tanzanian border. The new problem is we can't leave until nearly 11am because the government has designated the last Saturday of every month as community service day. Rwanda has the same where everybody has to sweep or paint or do something. Most, I suspect, sleep in. It's forbidden to open your business, cruise around.

The drive along the shore of Lake Tanzania is gorgeous. The lake looks more like an ocean; water is clear. And mountains drop right to the shore. David and Modeste really like American country-western music, and they've brought their tapes. They even know the lyrics.

Lake Tanganyika whizzing by the car window.
After three hours we end up in some little town at an unmarked building. This is immigration where I get my exit stamp. I never, ever, would have found this. And then it's another hour up and down a rutted, dirt road--no signs, nothing. Yes, you need a Toyota Land Cruiser. Now, it's the Burundian frontier post. So I don't have to walk some kilometers through no-man's land, we bribe the guards to let us pass to the Tanzanian gate, where I'm dropped. The day isn't cheap because of horrendous gas prices, but the job is done.

Pumping gas. David with the water bottle, Modeste in the glasses behind him. Please, nobody light a cigarette.

The Tanzanian immigration post is fun and efficient. The officer welcomes me and makes sure the taxi driver who takes me to Kigoma is charging the correct price. After another hour plus of driving through dust so thick the driver has to occasionally stop or put on the headlights. We arrive in Kigoma. The sun has set.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

More summer fun in Goma, DRC

It's not always gorillas that attract the hardcore traveler to Rwanda. Goma, that thriving, vibrant metropolis of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, sure brings them in. Um, maybe not. Gorilla viewing takes more money and time (both which are running low), so I opt to take a mini-bus to Gisenyi, Rwanda's own "beach" resort on Lake Kivu and just a few kilometers from Goma.

My guide, Emmanuel, meets me on the Rwanda side. He's very tiny and looks about twelve years old, but no, he's a married adult and extremely personable and bursting with enthusiasm. I feel sorry for him because Goma is a friggin' dump and he's got his work cut out. God almighty, what a place.

Six years ago a nearby volcano blew and combined with an underground burst of lava in a place no one expected, the lava flow took out half the city. Goma is slowly being rebuilt, but everywhere you look is broken up lava rock with not a lick of green anywhere. And the dust is so thick, you can hardly see a block away.
Main Street, Goma.

Typical lava street.

Emmanuel takes me climbing over lava flow and to the market where piles and piles of clothes--the kind of stuff you see in those mammoth-sized bales in the warehouse yards in south Los Angeles--are resold. Looking for that brown and white, Hawaiian-print polo shirt? It's here.
Goma market.

A belt for sale: only 1 US$
We drive past the airport, past UN troops, through main streets and back streets, and then down to the Congolese side of Lake Kivu where the NGOs have their mansions. I could easily do a blog post on these NGOs, but I'll think I'll save up my rant. There are over 200 different NGOs in Goma alone. They live really well.
One of the "mid-size" NGO houses in Goma.

All these photos were taken somewhat on the sly, no surprise. No problem with border crossings in either direction. And for one of those serendipitous travel moments...Back in Ethiopia at the Blue Nile falls, Rob from Oregon--an excellent traveler and photographer--and I spent a pleasant evening chatting about the more obscure places in the world, as travelers who meet up in the hostels do. In a complete coincidence we ran into each other a week later in the Ethiopian Airlines office in Djibouti, and if that isn't enough, he had just arrived in Rwanda from Goma as I was going over--over a month later and in the middle of Africa. Too funny!! One is never alone. His photography is exceptional, and here is a link to his site: http://www.so-sophoto.com/

Roaming across Rwanda

Unless I want to visit another park, it's time to move on from Uganda. Some of you might be wondering what, if any, security measures are taking place in view of the bombings in Kampala during the World Cup. The only thing that affects the traveler is the constant "wanding" every time you enter a hotel, a restaurant, or even a bus. Gotta coin tucked down your backpack? Odds are you're going to have to take it out for examination--that kind of thing.

OK, off I go on a 9-hour bus ride through bumps and dust to Rwanda. I like this country! And not just because of the welcoming free visa for US passport holders. It's beautiful: mountainous with terraced, cultivated hillsides much like Peru or Nepal. People are exceptionally friendly and helpful. And in one of the best government decisions--ever--plastic bags are banned. I had heard about this back in Uganda and ditched one bag I use for my laundry down into the depths of my backpack. Sure enough, at the border officials rooted around a tote bag and confiscated a plastic bag my water bottle was in. The result is a virtually litter-free country (Somalilanders please come here and take notes!) Another policy is that they're very fussy about people with cameras. Pictures of buildings, government stuff, and whatever is banned and your camera will be confiscated. So, no pictures for this blog post!

Fumes and dust are minimal with fewer cars than Uganda. And since this is one of the most densely populated countries in Africa, huge, long lines of people simply walk along the sides of the road and up and down the hills, carrying unbelievable loads of stuff on their heads and large water containers in each hand. And everyone appears industrious with little idle slacking.

I visit the Genocide Memorial in Kigali, which commemorates the slaughter in 1994 of one million people in only a hundred days. Despite the finger pointing of why this happened, you gotta wonder about when it comes down to a person standing there with a machete in his/her hand ready to whack a baby into pieces with whom does the ultimate responsibility lie? The Memorial is tasteful, but there are memorials in Rwanda that require a really strong stomach.
I've asked a few people where they were during those hundred days: my driver told me he and his mother and two sisters hid in a bus for two months; the rest of his family didn't make it. Another grew up an orphan. Everyone now says the country looks forward and has abolished tribalism. I hope they make it.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Murchison Falls

Some of you are probably wondering where the hell are the animals in this whole saga. After all, it's Africa. That's what you do here: chase around game reserves like something out of Hatari. OK, so here it comes...

About two hundred miles north of Kampala is Murchison Falls, a place not only in the lore of the search for the Nile, but once one of Africa's premier game reserves--until the massive slaughter of animals under that psycho of the ages Idi Amin, or his successor Obote, or the Lords Resistance Army. For much of the last forty years, Murchison Falls has been off limits, but presently it's calm and the animals are back. Before the troubles began, the park was used, in part, for the filming of the African Queen, and since I've shamelessly ripped off the movie poster for this blog, the least I can do is visit and pay my respects. And as a side note, it was here that Ernest Hemingway suffered the two back-to-back plane crashes--with the last one nearly killing him.

So, off I go with seven more-than-congenial English, German, and American companions. A backpackers hostel in Kampala offers a three-day safari for only $240--an absolute bargain.

Murchison Falls may not be the highest or widest falls in the world, but it has the distinction of being the most powerful. The Nile River at this point in its journey north squeezes from a width of fifty meters through a six-meter gorge in an unbelievable burst of fury. We hike to the top and then to the bottom.
Murchison Falls

The next morning I go on a game drive through the reserve, and the complete assortment of animals are at work, standing about looking photogenic. I've got a ton of pictures, but here are a few that don't need to be blown up...

And if that isn't enough, we follow this with a cruise for some hours up the Nile toward the falls where there is an elephant and hippos and crocodiles galore. This is the jungle boat cruise for real...

Some kind of water buffalo.

Thursday, July 22, 2010


Anyone who can walk around an African city for more than a day must have fake lungs. The amount of black fumes, white fumes, and just plain filthy fumes belching at full force from all exhaust pipes can asphyxiate all but a 5-pack a day smoker. And this does not count the dust. Often I cannot see across the street. Nairobi is really bad in the fume department, so I flee on a (incredibly comfortable) bus for a 12-hour ride to Kampala, Uganda. I find no relief from chronic headaches, coughing, and blowing black out of my nose. I leave Kampala for Jinja, an hour back up the road.

Jinja, for readers of African exploration, holds a special place as the source of the Nile. And one of the greatest tales of the 19th century is the competition amongst adventurers and geographers to be the first to find the "spot." No more classic a story may be found as that of Captain Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke. Egos and a fractured friendship caused them to part ways in the middle of one of their expeditions. Speke headed out solo and half-delirious to a spot on Lake Victoria that he conjectured was where the Nile began its journey north. He was right, of course, but never lived to receive his glory, as he died in a shooting accident hours before his presentation before the Royal Geographic Society.

What would Speke think today? A small plaque and monument marks the "spot," but his name is now on a hotel, a street, and various random things around Kampala. There's even a street named after Burton. Both are probably rolling over in their graves to know the headwaters of the Nile are now a headquarters for such "adventurous" pursuits such as white-water rafting and bungee jumping. However, the site of Speke's discovery is a beautiful park--quiet and filled with bird life. Unlike the Blue Nile in Ethiopia, here the water is clean, not muddy. With a visible, strong current, I think the beach ball tossed in here would be the clear winner in reaching Cairo first.

Next stop for me: Murchison Falls

From Lake Victoria the Nile begins its journey.

This neglected plaque marks where John Speke first viewed the source of the Nile.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Swahili Coast

Places such as Mombasa, Malindi, and Lamu--Kenya's Swahili coast--have long resonated with me, and finally I bring the fantasy to reality. Some quick background: Swahili is a form of an Arabic word meaning "coast," and culturally, it's Africa, Arabia, and India all mixed together. Trade routes linking these regions of the world have existed for over a thousand years, and by the time the Portuguese arrived in the 16th century, the Swahili world extended from Somalia to Mozambique.

Mombasa, despite the cachet of the name, has succumbed to urban blight, fumes, and traffic and is worth only a small stop. I head to Malindi up the coast in a matatu (a collective taxi). The romantic coastline I envisage has the vibe of a 1970s style Mexican Riviera with the bougainvillea-covered white-washed buildings, red-tiled and thatched roofs, and the overall sultry air. Malindi has now become a resort destination for Italians behaving badly. Despite this, there is a monument dedicated to Vasco da Gama, the first European to set eyes on this coast, and the awesome Swahili ruins of Gede, a once rich and mysterious coastal town that remains undocumented in history; however Chinese porcelain and pottery from India have been found there. The ruins are extensive, and just the butterflies and I have them all to ourselves.

Swahili ruins of Gede. Nobody knows its origins.

But let's get to the good stuff. It's Lamu, a four-hour butt-bruising, buckin' bronco bus ride, followed by twenty-minutes in a boat that's the crown jewel on the coast. Holy smokin' swahili--it's love at first sight. The entire island is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it's stunning. My hotel is a restored, 16th-century Swahili house, and if I'm not careful, there's no reason to leave.

No reason to get out of bed at my hotel.

Part of the Swahili "style" is its carved doors.

No cars exist on Lamu. Donkeys are the only way to get around.

You can meander on these narrow streets for hours. Around every corner is a surprise.

Lamu street scene

Friday, July 16, 2010

The 19:00 to Mombasa

In different odd spots around the world are historical trains lines, built under massive human endeavor to open up new continents to trade and settlement. In East Africa, there's the Djibouti to Addis Ababa train, now barely functioning just over the Ethiopian border and approaching scrap heap status, and the Nairobi to Mombasa line in Kenya--ready for business three times a week. Built in 1903, the line once ran all the way to Uganda, and Nairobi was founded halfway along as a result. It may be a little tattered around the edges, but this train has heart.

At the station I must check in at a special counter where a woman welcomes me and gives me an already prepared card with my name on it for the first meal service seating. This is a beautiful and graceful touch from how people used to travel, and it's not like they're being nostaligic; they're still doing it this way. My first-class cabin boasts leather seats that look like 1950s vintage. I share accommodations with a Dutch woman.

Hot, sweaty, and happy.

We pull out of the station and the train manager comes by dressed in a full suit and tie and introduces himself. He warns us to keep our door and window locked during the night. Next a steward comes down the corridor, ringing a bell to summon us for dinner. The restaurant staff have choreographed an excellent meal served on a white table cloth of soup, chicken, vegetables, rice, and fruit. People from France, Spain, Britain, and Kenya sit at the tables around me, and we all chat as fellow travelers.

The dining car--note the overhead fans.

Sometime during the night the train stops and stays stopped--for hours. What should be a fifteen-hour run will turn out to be twenty-one hours. "Not to worry," the train manager announces over breakfast, "passengers will be served lunch!" (All meals are included with the fare.) This is great news. Lying about all day on a train crossing Africa is my idea of a perfect day. As luck would have it, because of the delay, we cross through the middle of Tsavo National Park during the day. I stare out the window for hours and spot elephants in the distance.

We stop at Voi--about halfway to Mombasa.

Inside Voi's station.

Still at Voi.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Jubba Airways, the Happy Way to Fly

Mogadishu is one of those places sure to strike a chord of absolute terror in anyone's heart. While booking my ticket from Djibouti to Nairobi, I am told that the plane will stop briefly there, but not to worry, that it's perfectly safe; al-Shaabab will not storm the plane and carry off western women travelers who are kicking and screaming. I ponder this information for some days.

On my return from Hargeisa, Somaliland, to Djibouti, I fly with Jubba on yet another former Soviet piece of dereliction, but at least on this plane the seats match, although the seat belt has not been used since a few planes before. A family of five pile in the three seats across the aisle. Through the scarcely contained chaos at the airport, the flight proves a triumph thanks to the charming company of a retired French military commando/paratrooper now doing security assessments of the world's hot spots for a private corporation. The stories are fantastic and in exchange I give a small lesson in written Arabic grammar. The flight finally arrives in Djibouti, but the plane port hole windows are so fogged up, we can't tell if the plane is still in the air or taxiing on the runway.

Anyway, I don't have much hope for the Jubba flight on the next day to Nairobi, and I spend a restive night staring up at the black cloud of doom hanging over my bed at the hotel. I should point out that the pirates operate out of Puntland (another part of Somalia) and are a different crowd of riffraff than the hard-line al-Shaabab Islamist nutcases who hang around Mogadishu.

At the airport there are only five Somalis and me checking on. Some airport guy with a badge comes up and asks for my passport number with no explanation. We are screened and re-screened, and now our plane escort comes. The plane is exactly on time. I walk out on the tarmac to face a shiny Boeing 737-200. Huh? The smartly dressed cabin crew welcome me. The plane is filled with Somalis, also nicely dressed. The seat belt works. We are served a hot meal.

Looking toward the terminal

The plane is positioned to get the hell out of there.

Something wrecked on the runway.

Two hours later we approach the Mogadishu airport from over the water. I can see parts of a spread out, low-lying town, but not much else. We land, and the crew thank everyone for flying Jubba, and for those passengers disembarking, it's: "Enjoy your stay in Mogadishu or wherever your final destination may be. Hope to see you again soon." This is beyond surreal. It's Mogadishu, for god's sake. I ask the crew if photos are permitted, and they say of course, I could come off the plane for clearer shots. Well, why not? I do notice on the entire perimeter of the airport are white SUVs keeping watch. Our plane does not pull up in front of the terminal and positions itself to head straight out to the runway. In barely half an hour, we discharge passengers and pick up a new batch (who look decidedly happy), including a few westerners (who look like they have been living hard), and off we go. We are served another meal, and the crew address me as Miss Pamela.

The next stop is Wajir, just over the Kenyan border, where everyone piles off for immigration and screening. Back up in the plane, we finally arrive in Nairobi, to yet another check and screening. The perimeter of this airport, in contrast, is full of armed soldiers. I am met by a driver who takes me to the backpackers hostel. By the second night, people know I just came through Somaliland and Somalia, and everyone goes quiet. "No big deal," I tell them, "the Somalis are great."