Friday, December 10, 2010

A Bad Night

As you will quickly notice, the upcoming world-shaking transformation of this site... has not come yet. In a few days I will be leaving town for a few weeks, to Rwanda and Lake Tanganyika, so please bare with me and stretch your breathless anticipation to January. Some of you might have other things on your mind in the meantime anyway, maybe. For now, I will continue my aimless literary experimentation in yet another format: the 100 word story. The following story is true, every unfortunate word.

12am. Bedtime! Drifting... CLAMOR! Americans. Young. Drunk. Celebrating. Outside my door. LAUGH! Sigh... 2am... Quiet.... SCREAM!! Foreigner? Street. Look! Thai woman. Friend. Drunk. Fighting. "DON'T TOUCH! NO! WHERE MY FRIENDS!" Go! Rescue! "YOU! LEAVE! WALK!" Saved! What? Alley? Friends? No! Inside! Sleeping! Danger! No?! Sigh... Wandering. Stumbling. Carrying. Heavy Thai. 3am. Please, inside! Ok! Carry. Pull. Drag. Upstairs... Inarticulate. Immobile. Collapse. Night-guard: Wide-eyed. Megan: "What the hell?!" Team-Carry! OUF! On bed! SPLUNK! Off bed... OUF! On bed. CLINK! Megan's ring. Search. Vanished. Sigh... Leave. Click. Bedtime! Drifting... KNOCK!!! Night-guard: "Key?" "?" "Listen"... Drumming?... Thai kicking. Inside locked room. 4am. Sigh...

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Thank You!

I guess I'm old fashioned. I've always thought that if I have something to say, and want to engage a wide audience, that the way to do it is to publish a book. I've never put much stock in blogs or webpages; the internet just seems like too loud a room for anyone to be heard clearly. However, getting a book published has become an increasingly impossible task. These days publishers live in a make-or-break world, and have no reason to risk precious time and resources even glancing at the work of another unknown "aspiring writer." Add to this the inevitability of experience, setting out to boldly understand the world, and landing in the dusty footsteps of Socrates: "The more I learn, the more I learn how little I know." I've almost completed the Course of Understanding, at least this one that I set out on almost four years ago. I've lived on four continents, from European capitals to tiny Asian villages, made friends with people from other worlds, and been constantly forced to confront frightening truths about myself. In the end, what can I say? I have no answers, have found no silver bullets, gained no transcendence, achieved nothing but a clear understanding of just how messed up we really are. That is not what I'd hoped to find, not at all, and that is not what most people want to hear.

Yet somehow I'm more determined than ever to write. I don't know what, or how, or who will care, but in my darkest moments I'm always reminded that someone somewhere is listening. That's you, you who are reading this now. You who take the time to read my writing, who send me thoughtful and helpful feedback, who express excitement over my future book or even offer to help edit and translate it! You strangers I've met on the road who expressed heartfelt interest in my experiences (strangers no more!), and you who drop me a note just to tell me you admire what I'm doing and how I strive to live. I so thankful for you. Let me be absolutely clear: you are the ONLY thing that keeps me moving forward. Your support, encouragement, and interest are the only things that convince me that the last four years of my life can be turned into something meaningful and useful. This month especially you have encouraged me powerfully, when I needed it most. This blog has received more visitors this month than any two previous months combined (even assuming that all the Tanzanian visits are actually me, which I'm reasonably sure is the case).  Yes, I'm easy to please, but that's not the point!  Your visits, notes, and comments have reassured me that maybe people could be interested in what I have to say, and maybe all this actually has some sense. For that I thank you deeply. I wouldn't be able to keep the spark alive for long without you.

To build on the success and encouragement of this month, to be more interesting and useful to you, and to reach people I haven't actually met personally, I've decided that I need to move past my habitual moody self-reflections and dry academic theorizing that you've all patiently born with. If all goes as planned, the next week will bring a major and long-overdue transition in my work here, so please stay tuned! If you want to make sure you don't miss out, consider clicking the "follow" button on the right, and otherwise continue looking for announcements on facebook!
This months' visitor locations
Again, thank you. I'm truly constantly humbled by how many amazing people I'm fortunate enough to know, in so many amazing places, and more encouraged by your support than anything else in the world.

P.S. My pageview audience today:

Paraguay?! Foster, would you happen to know anything about this?


Friday, November 26, 2010

A Billion Wars, part 3

Continued from Part 1 and Part 2

The next time you hear someone bemoaning the inevitable uniform flattening of world culture, take a step back and think about all the people you spoke to today, where they’re from, how they think, what they value, where they’re going, and compare it to the likely selection of people you would have interacted with in the same place 50 years ago. Which image seems more “uniform” and “flat”? Diversity is blossoming all around us. But in the end these might be very dark blossoms indeed.
Someone sure is thrilled to see tourists...
Don’t think that my belief in the exponential growth of diversity means I’m suggesting we’re entering a brave new world of tolerance and the breaking down of social walls. While the fabric of cultural identity is being transformed, the foundation of conflict has not budged. Even as the behavior becomes more strained and contrived, we are still determined to see the world from an “us” and “them” perspective. In the past “they” were often a faceless symbol on the other side of the world, and “those damned Russians” and “Remember the Alamo, kill the Mexicans!” was a manageable and natural way to maintain a close-knit society. But suddenly the Mexicans are living next door, the Russian is your landlord, and don’t forget the Indian, Vietnamese, and Iranian who own the nearest shops. Sadly, the fact that “they” suddenly have a face and humanity (although “strange” and “not quite right”) has not bound us together into a world of peace and good will, it has made us all more threatened by the proximity of such foreignness. In a world of increasing contact between vastly different perspectives and lifestyles, the potential for conflict is heightened within a rapidly shrinking psychological space. There will be increased reactions against "them," because "they" are suddenly in our backyards. There will be countless new lines of conflict as the breakdown of cultural, ideological, religious, and ethnic integrity within groups triggers the splintering into smaller and smaller social cells. There will be increased frustration with the "exoticism" we morn, because they‘re “just so weird“ or "refuse to live in the 21st century!" While the demons of conflict, violence, and hate were once often forced to journey from nation to nation or culture to culture, they can now hop lightly from door to door, where a different culture, religion, lifestyle, skin color, and language is already residing! The dry beams of society could so easily ignite into one fiery purge after another, jumping to the slightly stronger side of one social division after another, until - too late! - it becomes clear that everyone is a “them” in one way or another.  
Look at that body language!

Can’t we all just learn to get along? Certainly we can! Will we? Very questionable, considering the rate and direction we’re going. But my reasons for believing that are part of another story.
However, within these age-old and suddenly imperative problems a possible source of help is emerging. On the forefront of these developments are the people that author Pico Iyer names "The Global Souls." They are raised without a specific national, cultural, or even linguistic identity, and can only consistently consider themselves to be citizens of the world. People like the young girl in the beginning of part two of this post are increasingly common, having a passport from one country, a language from another, a skin color from a third place, and a cultural identity from yet another. They are still rare, yes, but as the boundaries of the world continue to blur, their numbers can only increase. You probably know a few already, although you’ll have to think hard to identify them, as one of their gifts is to blend into whatever social context they’re in. One the inside, however, they know that they belong neither here nor there completely.

At least the expectations are clear...
She almost didn't make it out alive.
 Because of their inherent independence from any one identity, these Global Souls present unique possibilities in the evolution of society. As this young girl grows up, with her head in Japan, her papers in Thailand, her soul in Brazil and the Philippines, and perhaps even a toe or two in Portugal and America, let's say there comes a time when Japan enters into conflict with China... or, to make it more interesting, with Brazil. Whose side will she fall on? She certainly won't be pulled along with the mindless “It‘s us or them!” crowd, whichever crowd that may be. Her tendency will most like be the opposite of nationalistic, or judgmental, or even invested. The easiest way is to not take sides at all, and as she's increasingly reminded that Japan is not where she belongs, perhaps she will even leave for another "half-home" in Thailand, or Portugal, or somewhere else entirely. And here is the possibility these Global Souls present. They don’t care. They will not be pulled into "Us vs. Them," because they are always "Them." They will not go with the herd mentality that pulled most Americans into hating the Russians, or most Germans into blaming the Jews, or most Jews into demonizing the Pakistanis. They will see both sides, and often, when forced to choose sides, they will leave.

Too much culture.  We are NOT amused.
The Global Souls offer an new approach to the increasingly volatile "in-group/out-group" mentality that has thus far defined human society and will eventually destroy us as all the groups are mashed together. In the end it could go one of two ways: The Global Souls can lead us into a different way of seeing the world and each other, a world-view that expects and thrives on strangeness instead of being threatened by it. They are not invested into any of our silly little "in-groups," and therefore don't have to care about our silly conflicts. On the other hand, the fact is that they don't have to care at all, and as the conflicts, fear-mongering, and wall-building continues, they could just as easily check-out, live as untangled lives as they can manage, and watch us destroy ourselves for identities and ideas that they can't quite understand.

Future leaders of a bright new tomorrow, or simply not part of problem in a world of a billion little wars? I don’t know, but they have managed to divest themselves of the borders and boundaries that toss most of us against each other, so there’s hope in that at least.

For myself I am just as susceptible to frustration and knee-jerk reactions against those who are different than me as anyone, if not more so. I’m not writing to reveal the answers, I don’t have any. But we all need to be part of the discussion on this one, to observe, consider, explore, and one by one to discover a way for our billions of new worlds to exist on one shrinking planet. If we fail, as a society, as cultures, as individuals, there can only one alternative.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Billion Cultures? Part 2

Continued from Part 1

Jan is a Czech Catholic 
Medical student.  Probably
not the first person you'd
ask about Muslim merchants
on Zanzibar... but he just
might surprise you.
The fact is we're concerned about losing the predictability of exoticism. We recently had at least the theoretical guarantee that if we go here and there we will experience this and that, a guarantee that is all but vanished. But even many of the most experienced travelers still take for granted the explosion of (totally unpredictable) diversity and novelty around every human corner.

When in history could you bump into a young girl born to a Brazilian father (he was part Portuguese) and a Philippine mother (she was part American) who was born in Thailand and raised in Japan? I met this girl, she has blue eyes and dark skin, and could translate for her parents in each of these languages except Thai, the language on the front of her passport. What good does it do to ask "where are you from?" What is her culture? Her native language? Her home? She's something new, maybe unique, a direct product of globalization and impossible perhaps only 50 years ago. Her lifestyle, personal identity, and perspective on the world are bound to be fascinating and as worthy of exploration as any "authentic" pigmy tribe or lost civilization.     
Mario is Spanish, with a fascination for Sikh culture and
fashion, even here in the deserts of Rajasthan. 
Anachronistic? Sure! Unique and interesting? I think so!
 When I ask a Dutchman (well, half Spanish and born in America (US passport) but raised in Amsterdam) who has lived his entire adult live in Vietnam what he thinks about the disappearance of tulips in Holland, what sense will it make? The question is based on the assumption that when he tells me he's from Holland, that he is informed and concerned about all things I consider "Dutch."
All over Japan you can see a bizarre
cultural transfusion. It's all about
cartoon characters, yes, but
charaters borrowed from all over
the world, from French Maids to
American High School students.
All imitated and emulated by an
otherwise mono-cultural society. 
Even I, who fit pretty well into the American "box," can't deliver an explanation of the latest Hollywood movie, US election, war, fashion innovation, or newest slang. I constantly disappoint people who are excited to speak to an "American," who haven't realized that these definitions are breaking down. However, if you want to talk about chopsticks, the Ganges River, wildebeest migrations, or the Velvet Revolution, I'm your man. For the place(s) I come from, the languages I speak, the things I know about, and the things I'm interested in, I'm pretty confident in saying I'm unique too, a product of globalization, certainly not impossible 50 years ago, but very unlikely. Sure, something is being lost as the world mixes together, but something unprecedented and exciting is being gained.
Me with my Japanese "bride" at
our "wedding" with 400 of our
closest Indian "friends."
Some experiences leave you
changed forever.
This complexity is slowly permeating society on the level of individuals. Of course the degree of access still varies dramatically, but even 50 years ago a Maasai was a Maasai was a Maasai. Today a "Maasai" could be a pastoralist in the wilderness with a spear and shuka unchanged from a 1000 year ago, or a bowtied waiter in a restaurant, or an international businessman in a three piece suit. Asking him if he's Maasai guarantees nothing else about his lifestyle, you have to explore him. While this is certainly a pity for the integrity of the cultural "box," it means that every individual is becoming a world unto themselves, a culture to be explored, an "exotic" with new thoughts and ideas and experiences.
(Tomorrow: Part 3: A Billion Wars?)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Billion Cultures?

These days everyone is talking about globalization. The economists warn us about staggering levels of inter-dependence (aka "mutually assured destruction"), while politicians promote the rise of democracy (whether you like it or not), linguists hail the inevitable doom of all languages except The One (need to negotiate with an Indian in Tanzania for a "Free Tibet" t-shirt sewn in China and printed in Mexico? English!), travelers discuss how small the world has become ("you can be anywhere in the world in 24 hours!"), inventers plan the next barrier-breaking paradigm shift in technology ("hand-held transporters, man. It's gonna be huge!"), sociologist examine the infusion of Levis, McDonalds, and Bruce Willis into the core of every culture ("It seems, ladies and gentlemen, that Rammstein was right. We all live in America"), and Google brings everyone and everything just one click away ("Google, making stalking a celebrity on the other side of the world a little bit easier"). It's easy to sit at home and be flooded with pictures of Chinese children in Mickey Mouse hats, East Africans huts covered with Bollywood posters, Americans in line for the next Pokemon, and people everywhere discarding their Kimonos, Saris, Burkas, and Shukas to grab "well worn style" jeans, spagetti string tops, and high heels. It’s easy to feel that something valuable is being lost forever.

And it is, I don’t deny it, but there’s another side to all this, one that few people notice or mention. For the most part, all of these unprecedented changes are taking place very much on the macro level, or superficially. On an individual and personal level - the level on which one human being interacts with another - we are all fast becoming more complicated, unique, and "exotic" than anything that has ever existed. The individualization of complexity launches the quantity of “uniqueness” and “exoticism” from hundreds of cultures into the realm of billions of individuals.

Until very recently, all the people in the world have mostly fit into one of a few hundred boxes. Each box carried a relatively uniform checklist: America = English = Christian = White-skinned = Independent = Jeans = Hamburger = Cowboy, etc. Japan = Japanese = Buddhist = Narrow-Eyed = Introverted = Kimono = Sushi = Samurai, etc. Indian = Hindi = Hindu = Dark-haired = Outgoing = Sari = Curry = Guru, etc. These were (and still are) the boxes, and of course there were always exceptions and broad misconceptions in these views, but often when people talk about the loss of diversity in the world they're talking about going to Japan and seeing lines out the door at McDonalds and Starbucks, or to Thailand and seeing everyone in jeans, or to America and finding noticeable social dependence. The various categories within each "box" were always strongly linked together, and you could make an assumption about all categories by knowing the answer to one, usually "Where are you from?" "India." "Oh, I love curry!" "Japan." "Oh, I love flower arranging!" "America." "Ah, Wild West!!"
Rapidly these beloved cultural icons have become diffused, marginalized, replaced, or relocated (How long will it take to hear "You're from America? I love Sushi!" "You're from Japan? Oh I love McDonalds!" "You're from India? I love IT!"?). A few dozen years ago all you needed to know was where someone was from, and you had them in a box, a box containing tens or hundreds of millions of people. But within the space of a generation things have become much more complicated. As I still ask people "Where are you from" as a first grasp at a handle, I notice a growing number of people who have to pause before answering to understand exactly what I'm asking, and which category (no longer a package deal) I'm trying to determine. It's clear that the walls of those cultural and national boxes are cracking and crumbling, and something unprecedented is emerging...
To Be Continued... Mañana

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


I do have a few scars, actually. You can't lead my kind of life for long without getting marked by the experience... No, wait, that's a lie. It's what I want you to believe, the mold I press myself into by any means necessary. It's remarkable how one moment, one look into a stranger's eyes, can turn all the lies I tell myself on their head, and confront me with the simple cold truth. The truth is I carry a few scratches, the marks of a couple stupid moments, and one or two well-anesthetized operations. These are not the necessary price of living in India or Africa, they are the price of displacement, the feeling that I must somehow prove I'm someone I'm not. Each of these breaks in my skin started with great expectations, the hope for some permanent mark of suffering and endurance in an otherwise comfortable and soft existence. At some point every man (meaning every man in my culture and my generation, at least) finds himself playing "scar wars," topping each other with stories of passage through pain and blood, proudly proven by the scars stamped onto flesh like footsteps through wet concrete. It's embarrassing to bring only stories without scars, like passage through snow; no less real but fleeting, unquantifiable, impossible to be sure it ever really happened.

Western society has achieved something that no species or other group of people has ever achieved, a result of effort greater than any ever expended. Not the construction of the Great Wall or the Pyramids, the conquest of lost civilizations, nor any religious fervor to transform humanity, none have been as single-minded, exhaustive, and successful as the western world's resolve to be comfortable. Have we so quickly become ashamed of ourselves that we must prove we still feel pain, or is life so empty without hardship that we take such pride in every sign that our blood was spilt? I don't know, but I know this need digs deep into me. Somehow I feel a lack of pain and hardship to be a lack of masculinity, and an absence of scars stands as a negation of the challenging life I try to live, a betrayal of my claims of adventure and difficulty. What would she say about that, the woman sitting across from me on this ancient dusty bus?

The scars I do have are mostly from India, living in a village and collecting firewood from a thorny forest daily. There was no escape from scratches, even cuts, but my body heals quickly and well, as it’s intended to do. I knew none of these would leave the faintest mark, leaving me with no silent proof of what a difficult experience I was surviving. Months later I remember telling a friend “Yes, you see my arms? Here, and here? Most of my scars are from India.” And that was all I needed to prove I’d done something real and brave. I didn’t explain that the children I was living with carried wounds that would reveal mine to be what they are, scratches. I didn’t point out that after two months I was free to leave that perilously thorny environment and head to the beach, which I did. And I certainly didn’t say that I was “scared by the experience” only because I’d meticulously picked away at the scabs of every scratch and scrape for weeks, with the sole purpose of making sure that my body would prove I live the kind of life I claim to live. That’s not an easy thing to confess, by the way. But I’m trying hard to not protect myself behind my usual mask of honesty. Truthfully, this behavior is insane, and shameful in a much more real way than the shame that provoked it... and yet I don’t expect to be committed to an asylum for these confessions. It’s not enough of a deviation from our culture, and I believe there are more than a few people reading this who can understand and even relate to this behavior, this insanity. Why?

Why was this never a question I asked myself until today, stuffed into a stifling rattling African bus across from a middle-aged village woman? She’s Maasai, as evidenced by the stretched holes in her earlobes that would easily accommodate my big toe... should there ever be a need for such unlikely acrobatics. Her head is shaven beyond the mere suggestion that hair every existed there, and small bits of metal hang from her ears, nose, and neck. She is wrapped up in the bright and multi-colored fabrics that somehow defy the African dust, and left bare against these happy colors are her thick, dark arms. My God, her arms.

As hollow as my experience may be, I do know something about scars, or at least what it takes to create one. The ones I'd reopened again and again, trying so hard to turn them into something impressive, had still eventually faded to almost nothing, and now it needs a certain light to even know they're there. So when I saw her arms, more covered than not with dark, deep, eternal marks, I could at least begin to read the story there. Burns, long thick ones from boiling water, and small sharp ones from brushing against red-hot pots, were scattered thickly from shoulder to fingertips. Dark shadows of holes from pointed sticks in the night, short marks from the edge of knives or razors - is that a jagged saw cut across her hand? - and a half-circle left by angry teeth - could it be human? - draw the eyes from one dim window of tragedy to the next. A fine network of straight angles across her left shoulder might mean broken window glass or jagged metal scraps, and a mesh of lines covering her right arm like a sleeve speaks of hurried passage through thorns or a daily journey pressed close to barbed-wire fences. Over every new inch I could almost feel the pain, see the blood, smell the melting flesh, and hear the cries of shock, fear, agony, and despair. And I was filled with a shame so intense I wanted to cover myself and hide.

And then, after a long time, I looked into her face. You expect scars like these to go deep, and I mean deeper than flesh. You expect to see a haunted shadow of recognition that pain will come again, or a bright purity of acceptance. You expect to see an impact; how could trauma such as this not shape one's whole understanding of life? But somehow, inexplicably, it wasn't there. Except for her neck and shoulders, I could find nothing that connected this woman's face to her arms. Her face was smooth, unwrinkled and unblemished, without the spark of a smile or the cringe of concern. I could not see any clear sign of the shy timidity common in Japan or the smiling confidence of Americans, not the blank emptiness in Indian stares nor the eager cheerfulness of many Africans. There was no clear sign of wisdom or stupidity, no clue whether she is haunted or cheerful, an expression not engaged with the world around her but not particularly disinterested either. She was just, simply, human. Just living her life, same as me, lives absolutely, completely, unfathomably different.

I cannot imagine what those scars, real scars, would do to me. Should I ever survive such experiences I know I'd loose all desire to display them or speak about them. It would change me, that kind of life, that kind of pain on a regular inescapable basis. For her, they mean nothing, not good or bad, not significant or remarkable or shameful, it’s just life, her life, her real life.

I do have a few scars, actually. My scars are in my mind, the result of conflict between pride and guilt, confusion and certainty, the conflict of a culture that values everything and nothing, that demands self-construction and despises it, that despises self-destruction and glorifies it. I find myself crying out desperately "Look at me, I am real!" And I try to prove it with yet another construction. Her scars are on her body, the result of living real life in the real world, no more no less. Looking at her scars - looking at her life - I don't envy her, not at all. And truthfully, seemingly, hopefully, she doesn't envy me.

“Make no mistake, my friend, we are all scared and scarred. The only difference between us is what we choose to do with it.”

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The New Plan! (Or Catch Me If You Can, part III)

     Over a year ago I posted a plan for the following year (if you’re interested in knowing if things went according to plan, see for yourself! Now it’s time for a new plan!
     The new center of gravity, unexpectedly and wonderfully, is Cèline, a wonderful French friend I’ve recently fallen completely in love with (it seems she‘s also managed to fall in love with me, so it works out well)! Her job as a history teacher has her tied to France for a couple of years at least, so perhaps it’s more accurate to say that France has surprisingly become the new center of gravity. Unfortunately France, along with almost all the countries of the EU, has recently made it very difficult for an American to live in their country. In short the process requires getting hired, for which your employer must prove that no European citizen can do the job instead, THEN returning to the states and waiting for the application to go through, which can take 3-6 months, and carries no guarantee of success.
     The exception is Germany, which allows Americans to arrive, look for a job, and start working while paperwork goes through, and then stay, easy as pie.
     That’s enough background to give the context of the plan, but each of these steps is the result of massive research, consideration, negotiations, twists, retwists, sub-plots, and puzzle-piece-pounding that has gotten the plan to the feasible state it’s in now. If you want to know more about motivations, rationalizations or even vague justifications or recommendations, just leave a comment!

-Present -Feb 2011: Finish my projects and travels in East Africa.
-March -May 2011: Return to Europe to spend time with Cèline, visit possible work/study locations in
France, CZ (can’t hurt to ask!), and mainly Universities and Language Schools in Western Germany.
-June-August 2011: Fly to South Korea and teach at an intensive English summer camp to save some money.
-September 2011: Return to Europe to prepare to start with the best opportunity that present itself before the summer, which will most likely be...
-October 2011- May 2012: ... studying at one of Germany’s many Master’s Programs taught in English, ideally in something along the lines of “Intercultural Communication” or “International Media.”
During the first year Celine will still be in France and we’ll be trying to visit often, though after the first three months I won’t technically be allowed to LEGALLY enter France...
-June - August 2012: Possible summer travel or work, depending.
-September 2012 - May 2013: There’s a strong chance that Celine will be able to transfer to Germany to join me, hopefully at least in the same city, for my second and final year of studies.
-June 2013 - 2015: Then Celine will be free to transfer to another continent for a few years, and we both want to experience living in a foreign culture together, so we’re eager to take advantage of this! The location for that hasn’t been discussed in any detail, but the sky’s the limit (literally, in fact, I don’t think the moon holds much appeal).

That’s what’s next in the life of Caleb! Drop me a comment, and please catch me if you can!!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Historic Tanzanian Elections

Today in major urban centers across Tanzania an historic political revolution is being vocally celebrated. The results of yesterday’s election were announced to waiting crowds in the capital Dar Es Salam, major tourist centers such as Moshi and Arusha, and other cities such as Musoma, revealing that these cities will send members of the young opposition party Chadema to parliament. This news represents the first cracks in the hold of the ruling party CCM, which has held nearly 100% of major government positions since independence in 1964. Campaigning was especially heated in Arusha, where no opposition party had ever gained a foothold. In front of City Hall growing crowds waited through the night without sleep, encouraging each other by screaming the Chadema campaign chants of “People’s Power” and “Cha-de-ma!” Some were angry at the wait; while other cities had announced results in the morning, the eager crowds in Arusha were left to wait until late into the afternoon. “They must tell us! They must give us power!” said one. “If not it will be like Kenya as soon as possible!” alluring to the political turmoil that resulting from a disputed election in December 2008 in Kenya. But most were peaceful, consistent with a country that has seen little political violence in its history. “If they are not honest, what can we do?” said another. “We are not here to fight, but we want the truth.” Still a strong police present was very visible, fitting the atmosphere of uncertainty and possible change. When the results of Arusha’s parliamentary election were announced in favor of Chadema’s candidate, Godbless Lema, the crowds exploded into dancing and screaming. The police used hoses and army jeeps to control the crowds, but both sides remained amiable. Within minutes crowds were choking traffic in all major streets in the city center and celebrating vocally. The national results are less dramatic. CCM’s president, Kikwete, will remain as head of state, and the ruling party will maintain majority control over all major institutions. “It’s the first step, for Chadema,” said a member of the dancing crowd who was proud to be a supporter of Chadema since its humble beginnings. “This is the first time we can win! In next election, in five years, we will see what bigger change we can make! It’s time for a change in Tanzania. Today we can start it!” Pictures:

Friday, October 22, 2010

I Get a Haircut - Insignificant Moments of Life Abroad

It’s time for me to get a haircut. I know because I now have to choose between gelling my hair to a concrete-like consistency, or sporting an Afro (which is nowhere near as appropriate in Africa as the name would claim). You’d think that after seven years abroad I’d be used to navigating the various pitfalls of foreign barbers, but I still hate it, and always put it off as long as I can find any excuse to do so. I’ve often thought that my “Bohemian look” in Czech Republic could be attributed less to my desire to “fit in” than my need for a reason to avoid barbers for several years. Sadly, that look didn’t make the cut, and unless I want to go down that slippery slope again it’s time to surrender to The African Haircut. Yes, “The.” If God is merciful there will only be one. What’s the big deal? I don’t think I’m the only one who gets a little nervous about going for a haircut, even in one’s home country. Just assume that it’s your first time visiting a new hairdresser, you have no information about the hairdresser’s ability, and more importantly imagine that the only communication you can manage is handing him the scissors and saying “go!” Also, to simulate the fact that in many countries there’s absolutely no guarantee or regulation of the skill of any would be “professional,” imagine that he’s blind; for all you know about his skill, he might as well be. Nervous now? “GO!” I remembered a likely looking barber’s shop on the other side of town, and walked about 45 minutes to find it. You learn to notice certain things and pin them onto your mental map long before you’ll ever need it; there are no yellow pages or services listed online to speak of, and if the need becomes urgent and you don’t know where to look you could wander futilely for hours. In the case of a haircut, for example, you have to spot a place that will cut your hair (many places are gender specific), won’t try to charge you 10 times the proper amount AND will be able to communicate somewhat (which means outside the expensive town center, but not so far that they only speak Ma or some other tribal language). I’d noticed a likely looking place a month ago and it was worth walking across town for it. It was closed. At 1:00 on a Tuesday. I started to develop theories, and then I remembered that my theories didn’t mean a fig. Time to wander! About 15 minutes later I find another, in a similar area, staffed by a young man, all good signs. “Habari!” He looks up from his newspaper and goes through the necessary triple-take at the tall white foreigner who’s materialized in his tiny shop. “Mzuri.” Silence. “Can you cut my hair?” Pantomiming accompanies. “Ndeyo, ok.” “How much?” I’m not going to elaborate on this for the pages and pages of anecdotal, cultural, and historical evidence that supports this advice, just trust me that you must always Always ALWAYS ask the price first for EVERYTHING. Always. “Hmm…” He’s going to overcharge me. Whenever someone who sells one thing all day long has to pause for 30 seconds to remember the price, he’s considering how much he can get from you. Sometimes the thing to remember is that that IS the price. The “real price” is not how much the thing costs, it’s how much you’re willing to pay for it. Still, it irks me and most travelers, and a pause like this can often be reason enough to just walk out. I shift my feet. “1,000 shilling.” $0.70. Or, maybe he was just trying to remember how to say “thousand” in English. “Ok.” I start to sit down, and remember. There are always unexpected idiosyncrasies to every element of life in every new place. It doesn’t matter how much experience you have, how many times you’ve gone through it already, or how carefully you try to make no assumptions; some things you will just have to learn the hard way. However, experience and observation CAN teach you what to watch out for. I’d noticed that the local men had two hairstyles: short and none. Neither were my cup of tea. “Cut, yes? Haircut?” Scissor motions. “Bzzzzzz no.” Sheering motions. “Ah, um…” He holds up an electric razor and points to his own well-sheered head. “Scissors? Snip snip?” “Ah.…” I still have to remind myself every day that in many cultures across the world it is rude to say “no.” Ever. Sometimes the best you can hope for is someone who won’t say “yes,” meaning “no.” It’s much more common than you might think. “Oh, ok. Hapana, asanti!” Exit. Wander. Amazing that just a year ago, in the same situation, I would have walked out of that shop 5 minutes later as bald as Bob Hope and glowing like a ball dropped on Time Square. About 30 minutes later I see a “Hair Cutting Salon.” “Habari!” “ah, mzuri!” “Haircut? No bzzzz, ok?” “Yes yes, ok.” “How much?” Always always always ask the price first. “Two thousand shillings.” “Ok.” I show him my desired length, of about 2 centimeters. “Yes, ok.” I settle back, then wince slightly when he pulls out a well-loved electric razor. Fortunately, he also has attachments. The three attachments are “short,” “shorter,” and “hair-no-more.” There’s something I’ve had to learn the hard way, over and over and over again: you must assert yourself, constantly, and the moment that you start being passive about anything you will be taken down a road you don’t want to be on - sometimes literally! I’m passive by nature, and inevitably have relapses every day, which is the main reason I have anything to write about (hey now, I didn‘t say anything GOOD to write about)! The appearance of the razor, the limited size of the attachments, and the compensating smile on the barber’s face all told me very clearly that it was time to walk away. But it was too late, I was stuck. And so, with a passionate Muslim sermon blasting out of the radio in Swahili and the barber nervously humming to himself, the haircut began. The first thing that was clear was that he had never encountered hair like mine. My hair is thick, thick like a Russian accent, and almost as unruly and unpredictable as the Russian himself. Remember what I said about gelling to a concrete consistency? Usually the prep work involves spraying on lots of water and combing, then scissor snipping through the bulk of the bush, but clearly that’s not the way things are done here. He switched on the razor, and dove in. But if he thought that he would just buzz through, he quickly had to abandon that idea. The next thing I noticed revealed a fascinating fact about globalization: although technology is becoming so universal that you can see the same modern items from New York City to an Indian mud hut, the creativity in using it is endless: I’d never seen anyone apply lubricant directly to the blades of an electric razor before! We all do the same things, but we’ll always find different ways to do it. We have to, the world will never be globalized enough to eliminate our need to assert our identity. And the key is that in so many places, there is and will always be only ONE way to skin a cat. Let an African see you doing laundry in the Indian style, or an Indian see you bathing in the Burmese way, and you will either be laughed out of sight or meticulous instructed in what you’ve done terribly wrong, how to do it right, and why the very fabric of time and space has been threatened by your foolishness. Evidently, the way to use an electric razor in Tanzania is to pour lubricant on the blade until it can glide through anything. It still wasn’t easy, for either of us, but this guy was determined and focused. He could have buzzed and lubricated his way through a brick wall if the price were right. As he charged onward and locks of hair fell around me like angel feathers in a lightning storm (hmm, there’s a new one), I squinted at the mirror trying desperately to assess the sway of the battle without the benefit of my glasses. After about 15 minutes I reach for my glasses and put them on, then look carefully at the mirror. Whatever face I made the guy thought it was the funniest thing he’d ever seen. I tried to be stoic, but I’d already whipped off my glasses so I don’t know if I managed it. In any case, I recognized that I was once again in that familiar situation: caught in a cultural current without a paddle, and I’d have to sit tight until the river took me wherever it wanted to go. When it seemed like my head couldn’t get any lighter, THEN the scissors came out. On the second snip he nicks me. It’s a good thing I didn’t insist on scissors from the beginning! I’d be sheered AND scarred! I began to get really nervous when he started some “detail work” on my brow, which I know from many disastrous years of cutting my own hair is like trying to defuse a bomb: one false snip and you blow it. Knowing there was really nothing I could do, I decided to not look until it was all over. Being the exhibitionist that I am, I consoled myself by thinking that the worse the haircut the better the story and accompanying picture would be... You can see how desperate my optimism was trying to grasp onto something. He continued with the detail work for quite a while, sometimes so detailed that it seemed he wasn’t actually cutting anything at all. Well, we’re all guilty of doing “filler work” to seem busy, or to convince a customer that the service is worth the price. After all if you just “get the job done” and it’s all over too quickly... But that’s a different story. Anyway, I’m pretty sure foreigners get this “filler work” stuff most, based on the hope that the silly outsider might not know that a haircut should take 15 minutes and if it takes 45 they’ll pay more. “Sorry, buddy,” I thought, “but my money’s waiting for the moment when I finally put on my glasses and see the face that my friends will have to live with for a month.” The electric razor comes out again, with a new attachment. It wasn’t a longer one. Either this elaborate process had been carefully and ritually developed over centuries of African hairdressing, or this guy was really bored. And then it got interesting again. I’ve never seen someone use baby powder with an electric razor before! Using a shaving brush he liberally doused the back of my neck with what smelled very much like baby powder and then went at it with the electric razor again. Douse, shave, repeat. I started to think about probable attrition rates of African electric razors. Might be something to invest in.. and baby powder. Who knows, maybe baby powder is the “fix-all” of Tanzania, like duct tape in America... Now THAT would be a fast haircut! Maybe baby powder is actually more useful, which my barber clearly considered to be obvious as he doused me again. I’ll bet he’d also use it for skinning a cat. Having been sheered, buzzed, lubricated, snipped nipped and powdered, THEN out came the spray bottle of water and the comb. I could feel there was very little left to comb. Finally he motions I should put my glasses on, and I look. “Safi?” he asks. “Ndiyo, safi sana,” I say. Yes, very good. And it was. Now I just need to find a place that can take about 50% off my ears... On the other hand, it’s now certain that this WILL be my only African Haircut.

Monday, October 11, 2010

My Thoughts on Travel, Thus Far...

- People don’t understand travel, it’s just like walking around your house... Only it’s someone else's house. - I remember when I used to believe that travel eliminates prejudices. It turns out the truth can be really ugly! - When traveling, you are one side of a great game, and every negotiation or exchange of money, thoughts, directions, ideas are one round of it... Only you never know the rules, hold any cards, or learn anything that is valid for more than a few minutes. Those rare times you manage to win, you only know it if the other players decide to tell you, and it’s very hard to believe it was anything but blind luck. We’re the outsiders, like Cubans playing hockey, we’re just going to lose. That is part of the price of travel. - Travel murders mystery. - Anywhere you go, no matter how exotic, exciting, or intimidating, you find there people for whom it is daily life, mundane, uninteresting, normal in every sense. The true value of travel it not to adopt to and accept every exotic lifestyle as normal, but to learn that every “normal” is exotic and exciting from the right perspective. - A famous war-correspondent was asked “which stamp in your passport are you most proud of?” “None, what’s there to be proud of?” Travel is so glamorized: it’s just a matter of going! - If it’s more important for you to be comfortable than to be stimulated (whether you like it or not!), don’t travel. -The ideal traveling: Think, go, see, think again, do! Miss a step, and you’re a tourist. - I used to think travel was about becoming a different person: In Japan you learn to BE Japanese, in India you learn to live like an Indian... Ha! Travel only to enrich who you fundamentally are. If you travel to change who you are, you will smack into the immovable facts of your self like a brick wall. That is, however, probably the fastest way to determine who you really are.. - Real travel is not a break from life, it is life. Do it long enough, and you’ll never stop traveling, even when you stop moving. - Travel is following: somehow, everywhere, someone already lives there. - The world never stops moving. Travel is learning to follow its rhythm.

What I'm Doing in Tanzania -- or -- Sometimes Things Work Out

I remember my carefully detailed plan before going to India: go there, wander around for a month, fall into an interesting project and volunteer for another five months. After all, how hard can it be to find someone to help in India? My lesson from India: It’s hard to help a person. My lesson so far from Tanzania: Sometimes, things work out. My level of proactivity has increased only be the smallest degree, and while comparing India and Tanzania is like comparing mangoes and bananas (trust me on this!), a little proactivism evidently goes a long way. My miniscule change in approach amounted to contacting a number of NGOs (Non Government Organization) and asking to talk to them about their projects when I was in their area. Telling people you’re writing a book about international involvement has a way of opening doors! The first project I visited was Pamoja Ministries: Discipleship through Media (, based a little outside Arusha in Tengeru. Pamoja is a Christian ministry made up of several professional graphic designers, film makers, musicians, etc., and their goal is to provide positive role-models, values, and a psychological infrastructure of hope for the much-ignored children of Tanzania. On the other side they aspire to “bring to best of Africa to Africans” to combat the pattern of successful African musicians and actors signing contracts with western countries and never been heard by their countrymen, which propagated the mentality of “success is found outside my country.” Pamoja creates records and music videos of up-and-coming African artists and tries to demonstrate the possibility of high aspirations without leaving the continent. They also want to address the complete lack of quality TV programs for children that present anything like positive values and ethics (at this point it seems most children get their role models and values from Rappers, corrupt politicians (no joke! They’re successful!), and adult soap-operas). Within a few minutes of walking onto the compound I was met by Sig Feser, the founder of Pamoja, who’s been in East Africa for decades. “What’s your background?” he asked almost immediately. “Well, my degree is in Social Science, and -” “I think I have a project for you. For a long time we’ve talked about doing a psychological survey of the children of the area. You’re here, you’re trained in social science, God has sent you here for a reason.” I later remarked to Honza, my traveling companion, that I get a kick how long-term missionaries everywhere talk with the same “God dialect.” His certainty of God’s will certainly surpasses my own, but in any case the idea appealed to me immensely. It sounded like exactly the kind of work I would choose in every country I’d lived in if I had the resources for it, and with the staff and experience of Pamoja to support me... In the discussions during the weeks that followed the scope of the project consistently sprinted past anything I’d conceived of. I remember the brain-numbing meeting with Jeremy Feser (directing Pamoja while his father Sig is back in Canada), where he said matter-of-factly “So how many children do you think you could interview? How about 5000, could you do that?” “Ubbbllllbbbb?” The details have been mostly ironed out by now (for the official Project Goals and Timeline click here ( ), but it’s still huge. The topics of the survey will be Heroes/Role-models, Hopes, Fears, and Media Access. The ultimate goal is to give Pamoja a solid sense of how children will relate to the characters and messages they put up on screen. “If we someday want to create the Tanzanian “Sesame Street,” we need to know how they’ll respond to the main character being a 14 year old girl, or a business man, or a teacher, for example? Who’s the everyman? Who’s a clear hero character? If they see a snake on the screen will it automatically give a sinister vibe like it would for American kids? Is the father figure a symbol of security or of fear? What’s the picture of an ideal world? Should the “treasure quest” be about a pot of candy or a new school uniform? If we don’t know these things, we are just taking shots in the dark with huge amounts of resources, and we can’t afford to do that. We always have to make certain assumptions in this work; I want to make those assumptions based on as much concrete data as you can possibly generate.” The other main reason this is a huge project is that nothing of this type has been done on any significant scale in Tanzania, hardly in Africa. Children are almost entirely ignored and not acknowledged as members of society. I’ve been able to find a small handful of studies the survey the views of children, and all but two of them are completely focused on HIV/AIDS or concrete educational issues. Studies of how children here think about the world, what they want, who they aspire to be, what they worry about, has not been touched. No one has done a study like this, period. “I just want us to realize that when this study is finished no one in the world will know more about these issues than the three of us in this room. No one. We will be the foremost experts on the topic, after only a few months of study” said Jacob Mills, another Pamoja member who will be overseeing my work and who (coincidentally?) worked as a professional pollster in the USA. The plan is to take two (and a half) phases. In the first phase we’ll create a wide variety of questions in a wide variety of styles and ask a number of children around the urban and rural area of Arusha. This is a “test” survey, and we’ll use the data to decide what styles and approaches work, and what specific interesting content we want to pursue. The students will be speaking Swahili, so one of Pamoja’s main commitments is to hire a translator to accompany me. The next phase will involve an extensive refining of the questions and surveying ideally 1000-1200 students from the ages 7-14. Again, huge, because many of these children will be functionally illiterate or will produce gibberish on a paper survey, so it will all have to verbal, one student at a time, over a wide range of urban/rural, economic, and ethnic locations. This part of the process will probably take about three weeks. We’ll then process and analyze the data, and return to a small number of students with very representative or atypical answers and ask “why” to get one step deeper into the factors behind the values and to glean some useful quotations straight from the children’s mouths. “In the end,” said Jacob, “if we’re willing to share our data - and we are - people are going to want to know about this, because they are desperate for this kind of information... And practically anything you write about the results will be publishable simply by merit of what you’ve done and what you’re talking about.” So the end result will be a paper on the findings for Pamoja to distribute to a wide range of NGOs that could benefit from knowing more about the values of children (hundreds if not thousands of people in the Arusha area alone), and to send for publication to a number of African-issues journals. All very exciting stuff for me! Beyond that there’s the constant sense from everyone I talk to that this is important work and so applicable and valuable for so many areas of developmental work here. I’ve bumped into people in AIDS education, wildlife conservation, agricultural development, poverty alleviation, education improvement, orphanages, hospitals, and churches, and practically every single person has heard what I’m doing and started talking about how they could apply the information in their field of work. Children are the next generation in Tanzania, but no one really knows how they’re motivated, what they want, how they see their place in the world, how they expect the future to be, what role they aspire to play in society when they grow up, etc. I think the significance of thousands of westerners trying to make a sustainable improvement in the lives of the people here without really knowing how those people are thinking and acting is clear. I’m left baffled that nothing like this has been done before, but everyone’s time and resources are taken up by more “immediate” concerns. During this process I’ve constantly had the feeling that I’m ever so slightly over my head here, but just enough that I’ll barely manage to drink up all the extra water before I drown.. Just where I like to be! A few days after the first visit to Pamoja I sat down with Lara Warren from Adopt a School, Tanzania. ( Adopt a School is another NGO that uses government statistics to find the worst-performing public schools in the greater Arusha area and then “Adopts” that school, recruiting financers from the West and instituting a five-year process that aims to make the school one of the best performing in the district. It starts with construction (often a school of 250 students has a single dilapidated school room), moves on to creating water supplies on the school grounds (many of these locations are 10 km from the nearest water supply, and students spend several periods carrying the day’s water to school), supplies schoolroom material (pens and notebooks are often non-existent, and one ancient textbook might be shared with an entire class), then tries to address personnel shortages (one school I visited had 250 students in six grades, and four teachers) and teacher-training, etc. There are three elements I most admire about Adopt a School process. First, they carefully screen potential sites for commitment, lack of corruption (it’s rare that a school doesn’t have at least one teacher who uses government school-supplies money to support his alcoholism, and in “biggest problems” surveys students often list “teacher attendance” in the top three) and schools are only adopted when it’s clear that the staff is committed to the needs of the children. A rare thing already; teachers are paid 100,000 Tanzanian Shillings (= $66, or $2 a day), and are often moved to a new school anywhere else in the country every few years. Teachers are not trained in how to teach a class, and most teaching seems to consist of reading out of a textbook while students repeat each sentence or copying it on the blackboard. Little thought is given to effective transfer of information, it’s the students’ responsibility to memorize and the regurgitate the information. Desire to do more than the (very demanding!) bare minimum is very rare. Second, once a school has been selected for adoption, Adopt a School staff meet with the school and village council and ask “what do you need?” “What do we know about what they need,” says Lara, an Oxford Law graduate who is directing the organization in the absence of her Father, Brad Warren, who founded it. “They know what they need. If they say the need water, you can be pretty sure that they need water! If they say chalk, they need chalk. It cuts out a lot of guesswork and cross-cultural misunderstanding that way.” Third, the process of funding and development ruthlessly adheres to the philosophy of “bega kwa bega” (Swahili for “Shoulder to Shoulder”). At the very beginning of the process agreements are made about what the local community can provide, and what Adopt a School will supply. Usually the local community volunteers labor and local resources, Adopt a school funds the more expensive materials. “It’s all clear from the beginning: they do this, we do that. If they stop, we stop... It’s hard, and sometimes we’ve had to completely walk away from projects and lose everything we put into it, but you give too much; it destroys people. That’s what creates nations of beggars and lay-abouts. They’ll have no motivation to maintain and value the facilities and material, and three years later it will be like you were never there. If you can’t get the community to be involved in the project then there’s no point in anyone else being involved either.” These principles line up with everything I’ve witnessed about how and how not to do development work. The focus on education and the improvement of opportunities for the younger generation also seems like where I’d put my proverbial money. “Brad has always focused on the education of a person. Being a good person is more important than being smart.” Adopt a School seems to be going everything right in the effort to facilitate both better educated students, and simply good and hopeful people. After meeting six different NGOs I asked Honza which one he would fund if he could only choose one, and after much thought he chose Adopt a School, saying that it seems to be making the most difference out of the least resources. After a couple of hours of chatting about Adopt a School Lara was eager to find a way for me to be involved. Over the next weeks I visited several of their adopted schools with her, and saw first hand the transformation taking place. In the end it was decided that I will live for at least one month in one of these schools, where I would have several goals. The headmaster of the school (where 250 students have four teachers) was desperate for me to stay on immediately. “come, you stay for only two days now, teaching English and sports, it can help up very much!” I took this as a warm welcome and managed to leave, saying I would come back for a longer time if I could. He suggested I take over the English teaching for the entire school, teach basic math (ha!) and lead sports. He also wants me to oversee the construction of new buildings (I’ve already seen several examples of the fact that if you don’t watch laborers carefully, within hours you can guarantee hollow walls, watery cement, and crooked ceilings, and the “extra” material will “disappear”). Lara wants to help the school with their teaching needs, but has other motivations for my involvement: “First of all, I’d like you to keep an eye on everything for me. This is the first school we adopted, it’s pretty far along the process and we’d like it to be a model school, but I need someone inside to tell me what’s really going on. Then I’d like you to observe the teachers. Our newest project is to develop teacher-training programs to improve the awful teaching, but no one with Adopt a School has any teaching experience, so it would be really helpful for you to get a sense of the needs and then help us figure out how to improve it. And also, you’re the first volunteer in this area, so if you could keep a record of your experience and afterward write up a kind of introduction to the culture-shock and experience for now volunteers that would be great!” Again, all right up my alley! And again, just a bit over my head. The school is extremely rural. Really rural. And for anyone who’s seen the pictures of my Indian village you know that really means something. It’s at the end of about 30km of a spider web of jarring dirt “roads,” and has no electricity, running water, or shops anywhere near. The “no electricity” part worries mean, since it pretty much cuts me off from my computer, music, cell phone, camera, etc. But I suppose for a month I’ll survive. The house where I’ll live is pretty nice! It actually has rooms, concrete walls, and a real door! So there you have it! Man, I thought it would be easier to summarize this! Thanks for your interest, feel free to ask any questions and you can be sure that I’ll update you on significant mile-stones! For pictures of my Adopt a School visit:

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

One Way Or Another, It’s The Little Things: Part 2

19-IX Arusha Hmm, cheese burger! Of course it will be terrible, but there’s only one way to find out! “You have cheeseburger?” We’d missed breakfast, spent an hour going through countless restaurants that didn’t serve lunch, it was getting past noon, and we were hungry! The stage was set for another day of the traveler’s eternal game of “battle and surrender.” Dealing with cultural and developmental obstacles is just part daily life - make that minute to minute life - in many places in the world, and if you don‘t learn to deal with nothing going your way, you won‘t last long. But when it concerns something that MUST work out, such as food or lodgings or time-sensitive transport, then things get a bit more personal. It can be anything from life-and-death to “just one of those days,” and as I looked up at our waiter I knew the game was on. You learn to recognize instantly when things are going to be a little more complicated... which is most of the time for a budget traveler. “You have cheeseburger?” The waiter squints at me with the exact expression usually provoked by someone suddenly squealing "Ekwa Gobbly Goo!" “Yes?” “cheeseburger.” I point it out carefully on the menu. “You have?” “chapati?” “cheeseburger.. Here.” “yes. ” “One cheeseburger please.” “Yes.” My experienced traveling companion Steffen has already ordered by pointing to a dish served to the next table and holding up one finger. “One of these.” “Yes.” My not-so-experienced companion Jan spends the next 10 minutes tearing (almost literally) through the menu. “Do you have milk?” “Milk finished.” “Milk finished. Okay, what about some chicken with rice or vegitables or something, do you have anything like that?” “chicken finished.” “Finished. Then I’ll have a hamburger.” “Burger finished.” “Of course, then maybe some fish. What kind of fish is it? Is it fresh?” “Yes?” “Yes it’s fresh or yes you have?” “Yes?” “Fish?” “Fish finished.” “Fish finished. So I guess I’ll just have some pastries. You have some pastries there behind the counter, right? What kind do you have?” “…” “There, what’s that?” “chapati?” “No, no chapati, that one there. The fluffy one.” “…” “Here!” Jan gets up and points through the glass. “Give me two of these.” “yes.” “And now to drink I’ll take... I suppose if you don’t have milk you don’t have milk tea, right?” “yes?” “Milk tea? Do you have it or not?” “Yes.” “You have it? How do you have milk tea if you don’t have milk?” “Milk finished.” “Yes I know milk’s finished, so how do you have milk tea?” “Milk finished.” “I’m almost finished with this restaurant, you know that?” “Yes?” Somehow Jan ordered something, all the while with Steffen and myself stiffling our snorts of amusement and bracing ourselves for whatever could (and probably would) go wrong with our orders. But in a few minutes Steffen had his meal, a nice sausage thali, and I had my coke, and there seemed to be some hopeful activity in the kitchen. Jan got his pastries, Steffen was informed that “coffee finished,” Jan that “Fanta finished,” and I waited happily for my cheeseburger. Both finished eating, I finished drinking, and after another 10 minutes I called over the waiter. “cheeseburger coming, yes?” “Yes?” “cheeseburger.” “chapati?” “No, here, look. Cheese-burg-er. Coming?” “yes.” “Okay.” It’s always a good idea to check your watch often in these countries. Once you adapt to “African time” or “Indian time” you can find yourself waiting two hours for something before realizing that it’s never going to happen. I set my timer for 15 minutes. The time passes quickly. I stand and peer into the kitchen, a risky move but sometimes necessary. I see the cook leaning against a wall, and no cooking in sight. I return to my table and call the waited. “my cheeseburger?” I point again to cheeseburger on the menu and tap my watch. “cheeseburger finished.” “You tell me three times yes and now finished?” “Yes?” “Right, great. Bring me three samosa.” “Samosa. Four?” “Three.” “yes.” Two minutes later four samosa arrive. I eat them hungrily. The bills shows a predictable attempt to overcharge us by 50%. After a few minutes of obligatory arguing we calculate our own bill, underpay ever so slightly, leave the money on the table, and leave. Finished, yes?

The Hunter Winks

15-IX -Yushoto You don’t meet them often, but there are people who know that living means searching. They’ve developed a certain degree of comfort with the futility of ever ending the search, and just embrace it with the smallest (but necessary) hint of a wink offstage. Knowing they can only search, they keep their eyes and ears open. Every person or piece of information can be essential, or meaningless, or both. A conversation between two such individuals has the tone of two career treasure-hunters, chatting about past experiences and sharing a laugh, always sifting through each word for a clue, a hint, a secret that neither can be sure exists, but is worth being sought anyway, must be sought regardless! A wink, a laugh, a knowing look; these moments rarely take place without deep ripples over the surface of all that follows.

A Blue I Never Knew

8-IX Kendwa Rocks, Zanzibar Zanzibar is now little more than the echo of all its name evokes, and apart from the “real African” interior of ubiquitous red dust roads and crumbling villages it exists as a long string of beach resorts walled off from the “Africa” outside, complete with barbwired gates and beefy security guards to ensure that “the outsiders inside” are not disturbed by anything close to reality. Still, sitting in the middle of a perfect tropical paradise, surrounded by honeymooners and flirtatious singles, and especially carefully whispering under your breath the syllables “Zan-za-bar, Zan-za-bar” over and over, can hardly fail to produce something like nostalgia for something too distant to know, and in the writer it time and again brings to the cold blue surface the type of shameless dribble that follows: Straight from my notebook: A Blue I Never Knew On Snow-white sands of Zanzibar, a ruby sun slips off the edge of the world, behind gulls and palms and canvas sails; and all is drifting, drifting, drifting away, as I miss you. Heaven’s a mirage without you here to see it, warm sand through my toes all unreal without your hand in mine. I don’t know who you are, or where, or when our eyes will meet, but I love you, I need you, I want you here with me, in Zanzibar.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Strraight From My Notebook

27-VIII Lake Naivasha “There are few feelings like crouching in the grass on a wide landscape, creeping closer to a grazing Antelope, trying to ignore the distant roaring of the bathing Hippos, when suddenly you catch a glimpse of sharp black and white stripes gliding silently by you, almost close enough to touch; the feeling of being part of it all again, of belonging to a wilder realer world, feeling a little closer to home.” 28-VIII Hell's Gate “The sounds of the wild drift in on the breeze. The snorting Boar, the rutting Antelope, strange trillings and the snap of a twig as the Zebra pass. Looking out over an ancient gorge full of ghosts of Maasai Warriors and far-from-home Explorers, as stars wink and storms brush over the roof of Creation, and there’s no one else in all the world, a world that has never known loneliness. This is Africa.” 29-VIII Kenya-Tanzania Border "I’m now on a very bumpy dusty bus from Nairobi to Arusha, jumping and rattling down a red dirt road under the equatorial sun, passing cloud-crowned mountains leaping up from the red Serengeti plains, an occasional hut crowded with goats and color-clad women at a well peek through the thorny umbrella trees and disappear, and sometimes, if you watch carefully, a red-checkered figure almost as tall and thin as his spear treads his slow way over an ancient Maasai hunting path; lives and ages glimmer into sight, then vanish like frightened antelope into the dust and bush."

Straight From My Notebook...

16-VIII Mombasa

First impressions of Africa? Looking out the plane window past the runway to warm red hills fading into the morning, a richness in the air, not hot or humid even, just full; full of something else… another world, again, and this one stirred excitement in my chest, like a kind-eyed stranger it wiped away my love-tears and with a wordless wave revealed all the beauty and hope around me. The first words? Not even through the gate, the grinning WC cleaner exclaims “Welcome to Kenya!” with a smile to rival Christmas morning. A subtle request for change? Perhaps, but warm nonetheless. No haggling with the taxi driver, no commission scams in sight. When I finally ask for guest house recommendations he just points out the cheapest and lets me be. Such a friendly guy helps me find my guesthouse, and after initial reservations from the reception my US passport provokes jokes about Obama and “you must take me to America! Problem? You married?”

Rest of the day spent sleeping, thinking of what I’ve left behind, walking the streets and enjoying not getting stared at… when people do look here it’s discrete, with a curiosity and creativity that is… human.

Of course this is Mombasa, the most touristy place that is not Nairobi, but it could not give a better first impression of Kenya. I’m still very pleased Honza is coming, and very curious about this hospital project; I would be quite aimless alone! This first month should be a blast!