Thursday, December 18, 2008

Hot for the Holidays

Nothing tugs at all the senses like the holidays. Smells of certain foods cooking, or the touch of pine needles or cold crisp air, or the sounds of holiday music…

And not having those can create a real longing. So the ex-pats in Dar dig into celebrating holidays in ways they might not as fully at home. Yes it is 90 degrees, and yes, your shirt is plastered to you and the frames on your glasses can leave little red burn marks on your temples. And if you are three years old, you can have an ongoing heat rash that makes you look like a pimply adolescent. But damnit, it’s Christmas and we’re gonna do it right. Sort of like the old Avis commercial, ”we are sweaty, so we try harder.”

Our friend Marion, who is German, invited us to celebrate Martinstag with her. St. Martin’s is a big day in Germany. Apparently, Martin was in the Roman army in 300 A.D. One snowy winter evening, Martin and the other soldiers were returning on horseback to Amiens. A beggar sat at the city gate, so cold in his ragged clothing that he could not even ask for help. Martin did not have any money or food to give him, so he cut in half his heavy red soldier’s cloak and gave him half.

That’s the story. He got to be a saint for giving half a coat. Half! I imagine him, with a New York Jewish accent, “what, a little bit of the lining will keep you warm. Ok, for you my friend…”

The Germans traditionally celebrate with Gluewein, meatballs, and other foods, lots of carol singing, and a lantern parade.

Marion had about eight families over to celebrate. Some families were more clued in than others on the lantern front. I had plopped a candle into a tin cup and tied a wire to it for Bodie to carry. Other families showed up with elaborately decorated paper lanterns. I was heartened a little when Clare showed up with two tea candles tied to string hanging from a stick. Although both of ours efforts completely missed the point, at least I wasn’t going to send my kid up in flames.

Marion anticipated the fact that a few of us didn’t quite get it and had paper, glue, candles, and art supplies ready. Quickly fashioning more appropriate lanterns, we set out after dusk to march the dusty streets of Dar for our lantern parade.

Lanterns bobbed in the dark as we paraded down the dirt streets, singing Christmas songs. It must have been a sight as people stopped to watch a bunch of mzungus walking with lanterns singing Jingle Bells. It was quite beautiful. Each kid treated his or her lantern with reverence. Which is to say, Bodie didn’t immediately turn his into a flying “bopper”, as seems to be his instinct now.

On Saturday, the Yacht Club held a kids holiday party. The party had clowns (I guess no elf outfits exist in Tanzania.) organized games, crafts and music.

The big event was of course Santa. Parents who wanted to could drop off a present ahead of time and Santa would pass them out.

After a few hours of games, music, and organizers wearing thin in the 90-degree heat. A signal was given for Santa. The entrance was dramatic. And slow. Santa was apparently at sea and would be arriving via boat, so all the kids lined the stone wall over the harbor and flocked down to the pier.

Choruses of Santa Santa Santa rang out. Organizers were on their walkie-talkies behind us yelling, “I don’t care. Get Santa here NOW!” Families waited. Each boat that came into sight elicited cheers. Women in bathing suits, out for an afternoon sail had never felt so appreciated.

An interminable half hour later, Santa appeared in the distance on a large catamaran, which slowly approached the pier. The tide was low and the catamaran drew too much water to get to shore, so a dingy was dispatched for the final leg.

Santa finally made a glorious entrance. Wearing the full red suit, belt, hat and beard in the late afternoon heat, Santa tried to plow through the gift giving. Over 100 wrapped presents were piled by his chair. With the fans going, the beard in his mouth, and the combination of accents – Tanzanian, South African, English, American -- kids would tune out or not recognize their names, torturing the wilting Santa.

On Sunday, Hillary, inspired by local crafts, woke Bodie and I early to make ornaments. We walked around the yard, gathering sticks, large fallen pods, and interesting leaves. We crafted ornaments, painting sticks, tying together small twigs, and fashioning pods to wires. And then we baked ginger cookies. Really. We mixed and kneaded cookie dough with cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger. I couldn’t find real cookie cutters, so we used Bodie’s Play-Dough cutters and have a wonderful assortment of duck, tree, car, bunny, and dog holiday cookies.

We still have two Hanukah parties to attend and two more Christmas parties.

We, like other ex-pats here, are masterfully channeling the longing to be home with family into some over the top holiday-making.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Ex-Pats Re-Patting

Not unlike your first semester in college, or first week at summer camp, as a new expat, your normal social blinders are off and you are open to befriending others. Within a short time here Hillary and I knew more couples with young kids, couples eager to have dinners out or go to the beach together, then all of our college friend-making combined.

There is decidedly an opening of the spirit that happens being pulled out of what one has grown up with. After years of habits at home have become rote – riding the metro without thinking, or going to the store and knowing each aisle – living overseas can truly open one’s eyes in a profound way not only to the surroundings, but to other people.

Like in summer camp, you can find yourself forming fast and deep friendships. But also like camp, perhaps part of the ease comes from inherent time limitations. Ex-pats rotate in and out.

Our friends Teal and Nat are heading back to D.C. after three years here. They arrived in Dar as a couple that could explore the restaurants and night life of the city, and are leaving (find a better verb than “saddled”) with a beautiful 2-year-old, Clara, one en route, and a firm 8 pm bedtime.

Bodie and Clara love each other and I can’t think of a dinner that we’ve had at their house that didn’t end with the four adults jammed in a bathroom, glasses of wine in hand, Bodie and Clara playing and splashing in the bath. Somehow Teal always cadges the prime toilet seat (playing the prego card).

My Dad just celebrated his 80th birthday. One of the amazing things my parents have managed is maintaining friends from their young married days in Boston and Washington. The party, which my mom threw (and unfortunately we could only make a video appearance), had a roomful of people that my sisters and I grew up calling “uncle” and “aunt”.

It is both joyful to make new friends, friends whom you both like enormously as individuals (which might be a way of saying they seem to like me as well as Hillary, who everyone likes anyway), and as a couple. But it is also extremely sad that they are leaving.

Hillary and I have talked about how neither of us is a good as we want to be about maintaining networks over time. We are having a farewell lunch with them this afternoon, and Bodie will say good-bye to Aunt Teal and Uncle Nat. Because Hillary and I are both getting better about identifying things truly important in life, we’ll invite them now to my 80th birthday party.

Saturday, November 15, 2008


The Miller-Wise household welcomes Kiba, who is feasting on Hillary's shoes, and making us very glad that the floors are easy-to-clean tile.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Halloween in Dar

Halloween represents classic American childhood. Dressing up and gathering candy is one of those collectively shared memories, part of every U.S kid’s psyche. I didn’t fully appreciate the importance of candy corns and polyester costumes until being here, when they are not an option. When I asked Tanzanians if they celebrated Halloween, miming for them on my knees really scary faces and kids running around gobbling candy, generally I’d get a slight downward cast glance and headshake. People here, old people and even women with kangas wrapped tightly around their legs, are remarkably adept at quickly backing away from you without ever taking their eyes off you.

Not have Halloween? Preposterous. So, we decided that Bodie should have Halloween, and we should have drinks. A party was called for.

Thirty adults heeded the call toting kids and bags of candy (although some of it was fancy-schmancy European stuff, which somehow ended up behind the juice cartons in the back corner of our refrigerator where I hoped no one would find it). We had trick or treating, or a version of it. Parents sprawled out throughout the garden, nursing drinks and doling out candy, as kids traipsed from one parent to the next. Two hours after the five year olds had taught the younger kids how to mainline sugar, a giant Winnie the Pooh showed up.

One of Bodie’s classmate’s parents runs a costume shop/production company and brought along one of her cast members. The kids loved Pooh and chased him around the garden. Once the running starts, the dogs jump in. Now that’s a Halloween tradition right there, I thought, as Pooh sprinted across the garden with Dexter, our 140 pound dog, giving chase, nipping into his cushy foam leg.

Bodie, in mustache, beard and one of Hillary’s poufy white shirts, was a debonair pirate. Lot’s of “argh”, “ahoy matey” and “trim the sails”. We had spidermen, princesses, snow whites, ghosts, super babies, and ladybugs. I tried to remember back to my earliest costume memory.

I remember being 4 years old and playing Batman and Robin with a neighbor. His mom was, as my mom used to say, “artsy”. She dyed long underwear for our costumes and sewed black capes. I always had to play Robin and the one-year-older and bigger Eric got to be Batman. Always. Had I known then what I know now, I would’ve built an annual review into my contract with an opportunity at the big job. Being limited to the Boy Wonder at age 4 is one of my earliest memories, and I’m not sure how it’s limited my perspectives in life.

One of Hillary’s earliest memories, at age 5, is being dropped in a swimming pool by a playful Uncle Doug. He didn’t realize she didn’t swim yet. (Thirty years later, he still apologizes whenever he sees her.) She remembers looking up at the surface of the pool and seeing the arc of her fully clothed father’s dive into the pool to retrieve her.

Do early memories always have to be traumatic?

If we can have first memories of happy moments, Bodie might be in for a treat. As the party got late -- it must have been pushing 8 pm -- things got a little crazy. Bodie disappeared into a bathroom with Salome, a wily 5-year-old, and Marisa, a crafty 2-year-old. He emerged naked save Marissa’s Lady Bug costume and hat. Juiced on sugar, he ran circles from the living room around the hallway to the kitchen over and over for an hour, flapping his ladybug wings, shouting: “Chase me! I’m a ladybug!”

And if first memories must be of the traumatic kind, good parents that we are, some day, perhaps when he is a teenager with a girlfriend over for dinner, it will be time to talk about our time in Tanzania, and bring out the ladybug slideshow. Then he’ll remember.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


The dawn had yet to come up as we put the dogs outside in a pouring rain, packed up Bodie, a bag of coffee, a dozen eggs, some tomatoes and onions, and headed over to Matt’s house to watch the election returns.

The storm had temporarily knocked out Matt’s TV, which gets Armed Forces Television, so we gathered around a laptop and started preparing breakfast. Hillary watched in her Obama shirt. Matt clutched coffee in his, well matched to his pajama pants. Mason did a sort of cabbage patchy hip wiggle dance shouting Obama Obama Obama. It wasn’t for the faint of heart. Raj, the Australian contingent, filmed the TV once it came back on. Teal and Nat, heading back to DC shortly, cheered loudly with each swing state announcement.

Bodie, indoctrinated by his parents, knows that there is now a “bad” president. Bodie’s take on why he is bad comes from a preschool perspective– “he pushes and he hits” – isn’t too far off. When the anchors said Obama, which was every other sentence or so, Bodie gleefully shouted to us, “he said Obama!”

When Obama gave his speech, tears were flowing. I realized that a little piece of me, a knot, a tension, dissolved. Living overseas, I have to say “I’m American” frequently. And each time I say it, I now realize, it was with a touch of wariness of how it would be perceived, a small dose of embarrassment over the many messes that our country has instigated during this administration.

Certainly Africa, like most of the world, is watching this U.S. election unlike ever before. Tanzanians are exceedingly reserved, yet, when one walks around Dar es Salaam with an Obama shirt, people call out and shout “Go Obama!”. As we watched, Nat received a text message that tomorrow was declared a National Holiday in Kenya.

I’ve known how angry I was over the Bush administration’s mangling of most things it touched, but not realized how I had internalized that as some element of shame. Like good therapy, as Obama repeated “yes we can”, I felt a little weight lift, a sense of pride and optimism replace a knot of shame and cynicism.

The historic fact that Obama is African-American is fine, but the sense of hope comes more from his approach to how this country can care for its people, take a meaningful role in benefitting all citizens of the world, and ultimately create a world that is safer and more hospitable for Bodie and his generation.

I sat next to Hillary, Bodie clutched in her lap, as Obama spoke. A notion of possibility, of a more positive future, is palpable in ways that I’ve never imagined as a result of a politician. While this president is indeed stepping into the deepest assemblage of calamities that the country has seen in many generations, I have a sense of buoyancy that the U.S. will be a country that I feel proud to say I’m from again.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Business Ideas – Continued

I am torn between getting work as a consultant and trying to start a business. The consulting is the easier route – I’ve done consulting, there are lots of groups here hiring consultants and the projects might even be meaningful. Consulting calls my name in a sultry, siren-like voice. “Come do a gannt chart and a budget, you know how, and we’ll give you a nice day rate and you can chalk up a little self-esteem again…

However, I keep toying with the idea of trying to start something. I have the rare opportunity in life to attempt something new, truly a clean slate. There is opportunity here, but I also know there would be tremendous frustration. Simply grocery shopping or dealing with everyday matters here can be exasperating, so I can only imagine that magnified in running a business.

The business climate here is challenging. With lots of western donor investment, there are countless commissions and committees and ministries all focused on trying to make business investment easier. All this bureaucratic focus on trying to make it easier gives a pretty good indicator of how monstrously cumbersome, bureaucratic, and rife with corruption the process truly is.

Some of the criteria I’ve put in place for starting a business include:
  1. Tangible product. I want something to bring home to Bodie besides a PowerPoint presentation, and to be able to say, “This is what Papa does”. This is a reaction to many years of consulting and marketing with everything I’ve done to date able to be erased from a big hard drive.
  2. Must be able to sell a customer once, and then, if attention is paid to quality and price, you can keep the customer and not start from scratch. A reaction to zero based budgets year in and year out…
  3. Must be a socially minded or a social purpose business. This is the easiest to achieve as any company here that employs people is doing a mitzvah in job creation.
  4. The product should be viable long term. A lot of intermediate steps are introduced in developing countries – solar ovens, biomass briquettes – which may be wonderful and helpful, but designed for use until there is real infrastructure in the country.
  5. Sleep worthy. That is, a product or service that I could go to sleep feeling like it was a good healthy addition to the world and not slowly withering my soul with each day of further engagement.
  6. Money. I don’t need to be rich, but I’d like to make some money somehow. We have friends heading home soon who are scouting pre-schools. Its easy to forget here that the costs in D.C. for a year of finger painting, napping and diaper changes exceed what it would be to build and staff your own school in Tanzania.

I get stymied when I think about the challenges of building a team here. The slightest hint of initiative seems a rare personality trait. Try ordering something just a little different than what is listed on the menu here and you see a look of absolute confusion, followed by frenzied conversations between waiters and cook staff.

A few months ago when navigating the labyrinth of a big hospital with Tom, our gardener and his wife, we were told to go to room 50. Tom went to the door, tried the handle, and stopped cold.

I asked what was up and he said it was locked. That was it. Game over. No effort at an alternate strategy, say knocking, or asking about another room. I’m not sure how long he would have stood there had I not kicked him in the shin.

I’ve been helping a woman entrepreneur write a concept paper to be submitted to a business plan competition here. I wrote and printed out the first draft and reviewed it with her, noting sections that needed her attention. We met a week later and she handed me eight pages of carefully written cursive script. I was thrilled. Until I read them and realize that she had undertaken an elementary school exercise of simply copying, word for word, everything I had written in her own script. Including things like “Need more info here.”

From my understanding, the education system here focuses on rote memorization. I can’t imagine anyone I’ve worked with in the U.S. thinking that copying what I’d typed in careful penmanship would be anything other than a complete waste of time. This is the raw material that an entrepreneurial team must be built from?

The ideas have come and gone and my energy around them has waxed and waned. From solar to biomass briquettes, I finally landed on an idea that hit all my buttons: Dried Fruit. It makes sense as health trends in the U.S. and EU are trending so that people are more health conscious; roughly 30% of the fruit grown here goes bad from lack of processing ability, Tanzania is on the ocean making for easy transport, dried fruit would be weight effective for transport, and the process is relatively simple. I was excited and dug into the research.

I was put in touch with the founder of a company that has been in the business for 20 years. He and his partner started a dried fruit business in Uganda and expanded to a UK-based company that imports and packages. It’s an impressive story and the absolute right person in the world to be learning from. I was excited about writing him and eagerly opened his response, which began:

“I don’t want to be negative, but”, (an inauspicious beginning) “I would not encourage you to work on fruit drying for a number of reasons:
  • It is at best a marginal business. I have been working at it for 20 years and it took us 14 years to break even! We will lose money again this year and we expect to lose money roughly one year in three.
  • My partner and I still draw salaries roughly equal to those of a UK school teacher despite being in charge of a substantial and risky business.”
He continued in an incredibly thoughtful and analytic approach with another nine bullet points and a wrap up, “Honestly if I had my time again I would not dry fruit! Fruit Drying is only one step above basket weaving in my opinion ... and basket weaving is the last hope of the damned.”

Case closed. Mark that feasibility assessment complete.

Grateful for the candor, I am exploring other options. And I am thinking that a little consulting may be a good route to maintaining sanity during the exploration.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

High Holy Days á la Tanzania

While Tanzania is comprised of more than 140 different tribes, not one of them is Jewish. So for Yom Kippur, the Lubavitch Chassidim send over two rabbis from New York to lead services for a small group of ex-patriot Jews. You can only imagine a group of these rabbis, focused on outreach, clustered in a small room in Brooklyn, drawing straws. “I got Greece!” “I got Puerto Vallarta!!!” “I got Dar es Salaam????”

And in Dar, counting the Members of the Tribe doesn’t take too long. For a service to be held, by the rules of, um, well, by the rules, one needs to have a minyon, or quorum, with 10 men. They just managed to scrape that together for the evening service commencing Yom Kipper, the most holy day on the Jewish calendar.

One cannot help but be struck by this crazy contrast of worlds. Driving the few kilometers over to the service, Bodie and I passed Massai, strolling purposefully in their signature red and blue-checkered capes, beaded ankle bracelets, knives tucked in belts, carrying long warrior staffs. Bodie and I pulled into the restaurant and met Rabbi Yaacov, wearing has signature Hassidic long beard and side curls, broad brimmed hat, black suit and white talus over his shoulders.

I wanted to broker introductions. Rabbi, these are Massai, from an ancient tribe of pastoralist warriors. Massai, meet Rabbi Yaacov, from an ancient tribe of pastoralist doctors and lawyers?

Services are held at Nargila, an Israeli-owned middle-eastern restaurant, that serves as the hub of al things Jewish in Dar. It had been set up with a wooden divider in the middle, men on one side, women on the other, and Bodie running back and forth between the two, calling out to each, “here I am.”

A few middle-aged Israelis sat in the back, acting surly as if they were there only to please their mothers. A few eager Americans gave a good show of sounding out some Hebrew. Bodie, hearing Hebrew, tried a version of a Swahili song to see if it would fly with the crowd.

The service was, as in a Chabad, mostly in Hebrew. But Rabbi Yaacov thought jokes and stories were better in English. Maybe they would have been shorter in Hebrew. One, about a Jew, and Frenchman and an Italian in hell (I didn’t know we even had hell!) having the option to boil in chicken soup for 5 minutes a day in exchange for the rest of the day being paradisiacal, went on for 10 minutes with an upshot of how Jews aren’t good at starting things on time. I see a huge market opportunity for good comedic editors among the Chassid.

It turns out that beside myself, two women at the service are also blogging about their lives in Tanzania. (Mahlers on Safari and I didn't get the other) It seems that attending services in Tanzania may certainly have some element of spirituality, but is likewise highly sought after as good blog fodder.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Tanzania for Obama

This U.S. election, the first presidential election that I’ll vote in as a father, is being touted as the election of a generation. Looking at the past eight years, I can’t help but wonder about how the world might have been a little bit more welcoming and a little bit more sane for Bodie had those elections turned out differently. The President certainly doesn’t have all the powers and accountabilities that the public so often hangs on him, but it sure has been frighteningly informative seeing what one person can do to tank a country's morale and its perception around the world.

Thinking about what kind of country I want Bodie to be part of definitely influences how I think of the candidates and the importance of this contest. I don’t want him to grow up in a world polarized by hatred or distrusted because he is American.

Last week I went over to a friend’s house to watch the first McCain/Obama debate being rebroadcast on Armed Forces Television. As I was racing to get there, about as excited and filled with anticipation as I’ve been in a while, it occurred to me what an absolute geek I’ve become. Not enough to wake up and watch it at 4 a.m. in real-time (which, truth be told, I might have done had we had a television), but based on level of excitement, pretty damn geeky nonetheless.

Being this far from the action, from the relentless political advertising, the minute-by-minute media critiques, and from the regular dinner table updates on gaffes, we feel removed from an important campaign. We cheered Obama’s PowerPoint approach to the economy (Tactics 1, 2, 3 and 4), and jeered McCain’s patronizing. We rooted like it was a World Cup soccer match.

Last night, we got as close to the action as we could by going to a “Tanzania for Obama” party designed to be “a celebration and show of support for Barack Obama.” Situated at a beachfront restaurant, the party was not so much a political rally as an excuse to sit under a thatched roof by the ocean, listen to loud club music and drink a beer.

A table to the side had a full line of T-shirts with a picture and slogan “Tanzania for Obama”. Since kanghas, large squares of bright fabric, are the standard dress for most African women, someone had produced a line of red, white and blue ones with Obama’s picture, and slogans printed around the edges “Yes, we can” and “Change you can believe in” in both English and Swahili.

I was thinking that this party would be an absolute YouTube bonanza for the Republicans. ”Look,” might say Sarah Palin, “You betcha those people in Tanzanistan love Obama, cause he’s one of them, not ‘Merican like you and me.”

While driving the baby sitter home afterwards, she said, “it would be the first time that we Africans have had an American president, so that would be good.” An interesting perspective, although doubtful one that would be helpful in the campaigning in, say, Ohio.

Speaking of Ohio, we are offering our guest room as a nice vacation spot close to the beach for the first 10,000 McCain supporters from Ohio. Availability is limited to the first week in November.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

African Sting Bug

The sharp, stunning sting of a bee seems a rite of passage of childhood. Bodie had yet to experience this uniquely shocking moment. Until today.

Well, at least that’s at first what I assumed it was when he first screamed from the garden while he was helping Tom to water the plants. The familiar sharp shriek is clearly distinguishable from other cries unburdened with pain and fear. I ran from the kitchen to find out what had happened. Like any good mother, the 30 seconds it took me to get from the kitchen to the garden were rife with images of blood and hatched plans involving towels, pressure and an ambulance.

I, instead, found my child standing in the middle of the garden, in one hand a limp garden hose dousing nearby shrubs, tears streaming down his face, and a fantastic tale already hatching.


Sure enough, I could see the pinprick of a stinger just above his left eye. I whisked him into the kitchen with more drama that the situation called for, and began to treat the wound, somehow comforted in the utility of my role, however overblown.

As we applied ice and a topical, organic antihistamine that surely can only be sourced in the few co-operative-loving, nuclear-free zones in the U.S. like Takoma Park, the story of the encounter with the sting bug began to grow.

“It had EIGHT legs!” Bodie proclaimed, at which point I knew the situation had downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical depression. “And it had wings like bat!”

“It was a big as a bicycle!” he said with full conviction. “But it had a little mouth,” Bodie said, adding the probable to make the improbable seem plausible.

It occurred to me that his storytelling was helping to ease his pain, but I also questioned the wisdom of encouraging his fabrications. At what point does stimulating imagination become encouraging lying?

I erred on the side of imagination and fed the flames.

“What color was it?” I said in exaggerated tones. “BLACK! And RED! And GREEN!” he exclaimed.

While it’s entirely possible in Africa that Bodie was stung by a black, red and green bug the size of a bicycle, I assumed it was more akin to the standard American bumble bee and decided that as long as his imagination distracted him from the pain above his eye, I had made the right parenting decision to encourage his imagination and allow the pain to become epic only in the re-telling.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

On Chaos and Order

It is only after returning to Dar es Salaam after a few weeks home that some of the truly distinct differences of life in Tanzania vs. in the U.S. become readily apparent.

Yes, there are the obvious things that as I write about them I start to tear up. The immaculate inviting aisles at Whole Foods – all the earth-friendly, organic, fair-trade, goodforyou products perfectly lined up at the front edge of their shelves eager to jump into your cart and fill your body with antioxidants, the coffee shops playing cool jazz with comfy couches that don’t harbor insects; bagels, sensuous chewy everything bagels that delicately tickle every taste bud on the tongue. Throw a schmear on there and what used to be a daily breakfast at my desk has become pure food porn for me now.

But aside from “things”, there is pervasive difference in a notion of order and how individuals connect into society. I was at the bank the other day and the teller had enough American inflections that I asked him where he had been in the U.S. He had lived in Dallas for a few years, but came back, he said,” because there are too many rules there. You have to do things every day, every month. Here there are no rules.”

In the U.S., we all tacitly agree to a certain linear order and progression of things. Streets are edged with curbs, and there are distinct lines where streets begin and end, and they have names as demarcations., Buildings and houses have straight horizontal and vertical containing lines. And we behave with an acceptance of linearity: cars ahead of you get to turn the corner before you. We all agree to pay credit cards or rent or utilities once per month. These are all unsaid agreements that are understood to create a certain level of daily order.

There is no such unsaid agreement in Tanzania. Roads, if they are distinguishable as roads at all, don’t have edges. Just because there may be a car, or several, in front of you, that is no reason that you shouldn’t pass them and try to get around the corner first. And you pay for everything with cash up front as the idea of credit would impose a rule.

Entering Dar’s airport after the plane ride from Amsterdam, late at night after 27 hours of travel, Bodie a zombie-eyed limp rag from nonstop airplane seatback videos, the lack of order is palpable. This isn’t the overwhelming chaos of a war-torn country. Rather an implicit shared understanding exists that permeates every part of living here. One is charged with getting by. And the boundaries of how one does that are much looser and less proscribed than the storylines once can follow in the U.S.

Hillary picked us up at the airport. On the road leading from the airport to the city, traffic slowed at an intersection, two people ran up to the car, and, before we knew what was happening, stole the driver’s side mirror, and ran off.

Welcome home.

It turns out, that there is a significant, theft-driven, market in side mirrors. I went to the Nissan dealer and they could order the mirror from Japan for $165. A friend told me that you could go to Kariakoo, a part of town that is the biggest market in the country, but also has a brisk trade in stolen things, and try to get a mirror there.

One of Hillary’s colleagues, Michael, took me to Kariakoo. It is chaos manifest – small streets, crowds of people on foot swarming around cars and motorcycles, stalls teaming with all manner of auto parts, vegetables, and electronics.

In the midst of this teeming disorder, I discovered the one area in Tanzania in which there might be a comprehensive, real time tracking system. You can provide your make of car, the approximate date and location of the theft, and within a few minutes, someone will come out and fit a mirror back onto the car. It will fit exactly because, for $70, you just bought your own mirror back. It is like they have some massive database tracking system under one of the tin-roofed sheds.

While there, Michael insisted that we have the mirrors etched with the license plate number. This might not dissuade thieves, but it does make it easier to get the right mirror back. So our car is now tricked out and Africa-ready. Not in the way I’d once imagined -- big safari lamps, roof racks and bull bars -- but with mirrors etched, the rubber side bumper guards and rain guards newly riveted to the doors, to prevent theft (they’d break during removal so have no market value.)

As I was fuming on the car ride home about having to buy back my own stuff, Michael, wise beyond his twenty-some years, explained that Tanzanians are good people. “The problem is hunger. With few jobs, people do what they have to do to survive.”

Monday, September 1, 2008

A Glimpse into Tanzanian Health Care

Tom, our gardener, told us that his wife, Martha, is pregnant. He was concerned because apparently she’d been pregnant before but had a miscarriage. We thought that something radical, like prenatal care, might be in order, so took them to a clinic that is used by many ex-pats.

“They’re going to do an ultrasound, okay?” I told Tom. He nodded and said that was fine. “Do you know what an ultrasound is?” I asked. “Not exactly”, he said. I explained how they work and he got excited.

The doctor at the clinic told me that the obstetrician who worked at the clinic and was very good, also worked at Muhimbili National Hospital. And if he gave the okay for Tom and Martha to go there, even if it was out of their district, they’d get the same treatment and service at a fraction of the cost.

Martha's appointment was set for two weeks out.

Coincidentally, the day before we went, the local newspaper had a headline that read “Mental Patient Kills 2, injures 5 at Muhimbili”. Apparently a patient “clobbered his victims to death as they slept” with a drip infusion stand. The article noted that the incident follows several recent mishaps, such as: “a horrendous mix-up early in the year that saw two patients subjected to wrong surgical operations.” A man who had his very-working knee operated on instead of his head to remove a suspected tumor (and then died), and a man who needed a knee operation but received a head operation and is now in a wheelchair.

Muhimbili is that largest hospital in Tanzania and serves up to 1,400 patients a day. It is a sprawling mass of buildings across a hillside, many in a state of either construction or deterioration. There is little signage to direct anyone, so trying to find where you need to go - which involves one building to pay, another to check-in, and another to see a doctor -- is complex game of asking anyone official looking over and over where to go.

According to it’s website, “Hospitals are complex organizations and Muhimbili National Hospital is no exception. It has been and will continue to be necessary to manage and coordinate many changes which are taking place. It will be the task of management team to maintain a comprehensive health care services during this period of changes.”

This is on a website and supposed to make a prospective patient feel comfortable? Well, health care here, except for the rare few, is a nationalized affair and you take what you can get, public management upbraiding and all.

We wandered the grounds trying to find where to go. Open air verandas had patients sitting or sprawled out, waiting, some with clothes over their head to protect them from the sun. Gurney’s with patients were lined up like the entrance to a freeway by the front door of one building. The grounds were littered with open trash cans that looked like they had to many types of hospital waste in them; construction debris littered the grounds and had to be navigated to get from one building to the next. We waited through several lines and several hours.

We were directed to room 50, which was locked. And then to room 78, which had someone checking an old man’s stomach. There is no master schedule of which doctors are using what consultation rooms, so we were reliant on which administrators had been paying attention to who might be where. We finally found the the obstetrician.

It seems Martha is doing ok. She is due in January and her next appointment is in a month.

Tom told Hillary and me that they would be honored if we would name their baby. Our marriage saw perhaps its most trying times in trying to come up with a name for our baby. Now we have to name theirs? Of course, it could prove a good way to use a name that I can’t stomach, but Hillary simply won’t let go. Tom and Martha, we want you to meet your baby, Enzo.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Karagwe and Pedal Power

Somehow I thought Karagwe was a 5 hour drive from Dar es Salaam, but as I’m flying to the northwest corner of Tanzania, to Mwanza, where I switch to a small propeller plane to go to the farther northwest corner town of Bukoba, on the western side of Lake Victoria, close to Rwanda, I’m realizing how important it is to check the spelling of a town name (Karagwe not Korogwe?) before committing to something.

I was introduced to Gary Zieff, who runs a firm called dissigno, that focuses on appropriate technology solutions in developing countries. Gary and team are launching an initiative in Karagwe to install a system using human powered generators - Pedal Power -- which will charge battery-powered lights that will replace kerosene lanterns and candles. Most of the region, like 95% of Tanzania, is off the grid and so households use kerosene lanterns (which are toxic and expensive). The Pedal Power initiative aims to set up a system so that people can rent these human power-recharged batteries and lights at a price below kerosene cost.

Dissigno was one of the sixteen winners of the World Bank Development Marketplace Lighting Africa competition. They competed against 500 participants, were selected and awarded $200,000 to test their pilot project in Tanzania.

Flying from Mwanza, on one side of lake Victoria, to Bukoba, on the other, took 40 minutes. The lake, the biggest in Africa, is truly vast, covering 26,000 square miles, making it the largest tropical lake in the world. It is bordered by Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya, and is home to more than 3,000 islands. Rocky outcroppings dot a landscape of folded hills with occasional villages of scattered houses of cinderblock and tin or thatch. I learn that this land is well suited for the coffee and bananas that grow here.

Gary had asked if I could meet with their NGO partner, KADERES (Karagwe Development & Relief Services) to assess their level of enthusiasm and interest in the project. I spent my first afternoon with the Executive Director. This should have been familiar territory as I’ve done this due diligence questioning with a hundred nonprofits in the U.S. But this somehow was different.

Questions I asked, such as - how do people choose which Savings and Credit Organization (SACCO) to join, were met with answers beginning with, “we don’t do things here the way you do in America...” There is a decided tension to this development work (based on my, oh, one or two data points). On one hand, western development work is truly needed and welcomed. The government of Tanzania relies on western donors for 45% (!!!) for its annual operating budget. On the other hand, I get the feeling that there is a real desire to develop and implement home-grown solutions, and a touch of resentment of mzungu efforts.

The Pedal Power project is, like so much of the appropriate technology work being done here, designed to be an intermediate step. Using rechargeable batteries is not a hoped for permanent solution. But until billions of dollars are spent on infrastructure - to wire the country and get clean water - it will be many many years before most people have access to basic services.

I was put up in the $13 a night Hotel at Home. Water in the bathroom was in a large plastic tub for washing, and in the morning, they’d bring in another tub of hot water. This was as remote as I’d been. I was out of safe ex-pat comfortable Dar and in real Africa. It was exciting and surprisingly, didn’t make me as nervous as I thought I’d be. (Although if I start an NGO here, it will be called Hot Shower-Aid, because in my book, you gotta have a hot shower in the morning.

Hotel at Home did have a bar with plenty of cold beers, and I spent the evening talking to the local priest, who apparently was at the bar each evening. He asked me if I wanted to go to mass. When I told him I wasn’t Catholic, he started a guessing game, “Muslim? Anglican? Bahai?” When I said Jewish, he started laughing and said, “I know about that from studying at seminary.”

I travelled with Optatus, the accountant at KADERES, who provides technical assistance to the SACCO’s in the region. We drove out rutted dirt roads for many miles to visit three of them. When we went in, each a small office the size of two office cubicles, we were formally handed a guest book to sign. I signed, and scanned the names above. On each page, Optatus’s formal sign-in over the past few months was officially noted, and little else.

Each of these SACCO’s had about 2,000 members, and served as the regional savings bank and lender as farmers weather the cycles of crop harvests. I learned that virtually all of the members of the SACCO’s depended on kerosene for light in their house. I also asked for estimates of the amount spent per month, and all replied that approximately 5 liters were used per household per month, costing about $12. This is a huge burden for families getting by on under $400/year.

Before the visit, I thought the project was innovative but maybe cute. After the visit, I realize what a significant difference in so many lives, such a simple idea can have. The groups were excited. The biggest issue that they believe will need to be addressed is the initial plan to serve 3,000 families when so many more will be demanding the batteries.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Goat Races

Yesterday found us crowding the outside of a track with 10 goats who, with no strong proclivity toward moving herd-like in any single direction, much less any interest in movement at all, were being shooed and pushed from behind around a race track. Over three thousand spectators cheered at the Dar es Salaam Charity Goat Races, but the goats didn’t seem to be relishing their moment in the limelight.

Launched in in 2001, the Goat Race was loosely modeled on Royal Ascot, but with noble racing steeds replaced by ornery goats. There is betting, of course, and tents serving champagne and drinks, and spectators in big floppy hats, loud music, and a kiddie area.

One of TechnoServe’s volunteer consultants (“volcon’s” is what they are called in Hillary's office) stayed with us for 6 weeks while she worked during the break in her MBA studies. Young and single, she quickly tapped into a nonstop nightlife culture -- late night restaurants, clubs, music and dancing -- that Hillary and I had no idea existed in Dar. There is a party society that parents of toddlers aren’t told about, much less invited to.

The goat races contained a melding of these different worlds. We saw some of Bodie’s young friends scrambling around with parents chasing after them. Hillary ran into colleagues from agencies with which she was working on projects. We also saw denizens of the night scene - women in strappy little dresses drinking champagne, and couples in dark shades (it was afternoon so unwelcome sunlight to the vampire crowd) crowding the bar tents.

Bodie jumped and cheered on the goats. As he did so, I thought that if his intellectual pursuits don’t work, he he may well have the perfect build to be a fine goat jockey.

The goats were “bought” or sponsored by locals and companies and we can only imagine that much of the intellectual firepower of Tanzania has been tied up for weeks in thinking of clever names (Fartaway Faraday, Kid Rock, Ethel the Aardvark Goes Quantity Surveying, Ghoti, Furcoatnoknickers, and Deep Goat, among them.)

The races raised $50,000 for a eight charities working to help those with disabilities in Tanzania. It was a great way for these charities, which work quietly in the shadows with a poor country’s most disadvantaged, to have some visibility and support.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Lewa Wildlife Conservancy Marathon

Hillary has been busy working. She has taken over an organization that was in decline and needed a turnaround. She is very competitive, and this helps drive her. It can also have her running off a cliff. Or at least through a game preserve. Our friend Laura tapped into this instinct of hers and challenged, although she’d say invited, Hillary to run a half-marathon at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya. Hillary, who was – pre-Bodie, pre-Alfred – a runner of marathons, accepted.

Bodie, Hillary, Laura and I, along with Laura’s good friend Kalin, (aiming for the medal to be awarded to the first Bulgarian to cross the finish) left Nairobi early on Friday morning to make the four-hour drive north, past Mount Kenya to Lewa Conservancy. Lewa has 62,000 acres that include black rhinos, elephants, lions, warthogs, a rare, endangered type of zebra and pretty much any African animal you can think of. The area is savanna, vast grasslands with clusters of trees, and stretches as far as you can see. Driving through the park to the campsite, we saw grazing elephants, giraffes and zebras.

A sign welcoming everyone to the park read: "Warning. Endurance running in a a wildlife conservation area is an inherently risky activity. You participate entirely at your own risk."

The campsite teemed with hundreds of tents. Sponsored by, the largest cell phone company in Kenya, there was a bar tent, music, and Masai dancing. About 600 people (fact checker - please verify) were running, of which 150 were running a full marathon.

We camped around a campfire with others from Laura’s company, Pesa Point, who were part of the team. Here is where some of our planning fell short. When camping with a two-year old, it is important to think through a few basic questions in advance. Like, for instance, where is he going to sleep? We had a tent, two pads and two sleeping bags. In camping, it is protocol to bring your own stuff. “Bodie, where’s your stuff?” we asked. Nothing.

So we zipped two mummy-style sleeping bags together and tried to settle Bodie down to sleep. Sleep? Why? There is a tent to bounce in, and soft sleeping bags to bounce on, and animal noises and people talking around a campfire outside, and, did I mention that there is a tent?

Strike 1: Hillary had been busy at work and had amassed total training mileage the month before of, oh, zero.

Strike 2: According to experts, sleep may be a factor in how one feels and performs the next day. This thing that we call “sleep” was not so evident the night before the marathon.

But offsetting the strikes – we camped in a stunning game preserve. We heard animals through the night – elephants, a cheetah (Hillary swears) although I’m guessing it was a warthog, maybe hyenas in the distance, and saw more stars glittering in the night sky then we’ve ever seen before. We stood at our tent and watched the sun setting with an elephant no more than a hundred yards away. A family of baboons sat on fallen trees, staring at the campers waking from tents when we woke up.

During the marathon, Bodie and I raced around in a pickup truck to catch up with Hillary, Laura and Kalin and cheer them on. I scanned the savannah, trying to eye different game. Bodie was more preoccupied with the two helicopters that were hovering in the near distance, scaring off the animals so they wouldn’t munch laggardly runners.

At the mid-point, Bodie handed bottles of water to passing runners. Well, he stood for a good four minutes, arm outstretched, but everyone seemed to choose water at waist height. When Hillary showed up, Bodie yelled, as we’d practiced, “go mama go!”. She stopped, hugged him, and started to go. He burst into tears, to which Hillary replied: “I feel your pain.”

The folks running the full marathon were mostly Kenyans, with many world-class runners taking part. This is a different type of runner than we normally see jogging around the park. They are thin, all muscle and sinew, with legs that run from the ground directly to their shoulders. At the finish, they were ahead of most of the runners completing the half-marathon, and strode in, after 26 miles in the hot sun, at full bore. It was stunning to see these human gazelles effortlessly loping across through the savannah.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Camp Graduation

Camp Msasani ended for the summer. It was wonderful to spend time with Bodie and 14 toddlers beach combing, making art, singing and dancing. What was amazing, and unforeseen, was how the nannies (each kid was accompanied by one) gelled so that they’d start singing at a moments notice. The songs, all from their youth and in Swahili, have certain movements, and these two year old kids learned to put their hands on their hips and shake, or raise their hands to their heads, singing, “ay ay ay kipepeo, kipepe”.

One of my initial goals in coming to Dar was to get to know Tanzanians, and I’ve felt thwarted in that. But over the summer, I’ve been able to spend a good part of each day with 14 Swahili-singing, dancing and drumming women.

Last Thursday, after a mind-challenging exercise of finding and counting 10 things on the beach, the kids came up to the house for a brief graduation ceremony. Each received a certificate of achievement and a Camp Msasani t-shirt with primary colored handprints stamped by each camper. Each nanny received a camp t-shirt with “staff” emblazoned on the sleeve.

Parents came for this first graduation and the nanny’s started dancing and singing the songs they’d been singing to the kids all summer. All the parents stood and cheered the show, and I thought smugly to myself that I’ve had the luxury of being a part of this for six weeks. If anyone is considering starting a Tanzanian summer camp, a good selection of songs include: Jambo, jambo bwana, Mauwa Mazuri, Ukuti Ukuti, Watoto Wadogo, Kofia Yababu, Lingu Lingu, Tulingeba yuyo, Saa yakwenda kwetu, and the classic Simama kaa.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Green Acres

We planted/had our gardener plant a small vegetable garden with tomatoes, peppers, and cabbage. Since we are living in our own-created small community of Tom and his wife, Judith the housekeeper, and Grace the nanny, our thinking was we’ve always loved the idea of growing our own vegetables, and everyone else would as well.

So I bought seeds for some vegetables I knew and recognized. Tom also planted something called mchicha, which is a locally eaten spinach-type green, tembeye, a sort of sweet potato, and corn.

The irony is, the 85% of the country’s GDP is agriculture-based, and the same proportion of the populace are small farmers, with most being subsistence farmers. They grow what they need to live. People behind walls with staff in the house don’t grow vegetables, they buy them. But I’ve always had the organic farmer fantasy without the energy or enthusiasm to actually weed and care take a garden. This garden-delegation project seemed like a dream realized.

We planted in April and it’s now been a few months. The tomato plants are diseased, with a white powdery looking fungus on the leaves, and a fair number of small green tomatoes that have been small and green for some time, and don’t seem inclined to ever get big or red. The pepper plants produced a few gumball-sized green peppers, suitable for stuffing with a single small mushroom, or a half-teaspoon of breadcrumbs. The cabbage refused the invitation to even venture out of the soil.

It is funny that in the midst of my thinking through various work and occupation options here, it is easy to strike the entire gardening/organic-farming category right off the list.

Thursday, July 10, 2008


A few things have gone missing around the house – Hillary’s Walkman that she uses for running can’t be found. She has somehow managed to lose two new blackberry phones in the past few months. More disturbing, her wallet seems to have been riffled. Hillary asked if I had taken money as the bills were turned in a different way than she puts them in (this is the wallet that has been with her since college, so she has deeply formed habits about its usage.) Two weeks ago, Hillary had an advance of three hundred dollars for a trip she was about to take. The day after getting the advance, she went for lunch and there were only two one hundred dollar bills in her wallet. Last week, she received her monthly local draw, the portion of her salary that is supposed to see us through the month. That envelope, containing $1,000, was gone the next morning.

We had started wondering who might be pilfering and ran through the list of every potential suspect. Was it someone from Hillary’s office? Was it Judith, our lovely housekeeper? Under that warm, caring façade, could she be nabbing our cash? Or Grace, who we entrusted with Bodie? And on and on.

It was a rough period of a few weeks, feeling betrayed, not knowing by whom, and feeling uncomfortable around the house. We assumed it was someone at Hillary’s work place, so Hillary held a meeting of her key team at the office to figure out who could be stealing. But when the thousand-dollar envelope went missing, we sat and, like good CSI-devotees, figured out a minute-by-minute scenario of who could have had access and opportunity.

Hillary received and signed for the envelope at 5:30 pm. She discovered it missing at 11 am the next morning. So we traced her steps: upon receiving it, she put it in her bag, which was by her feet, and worked until 6:45 pm, whereupon she left for home. By the time she got home, Judith and Grace were well gone for the day. The bag went on the kitchen counter by the door, where it goes every night. She left for work the next morning at 7:45 and had her bag with her until she looked for the money at 11 am.

There didn’t seem to be any opportunity for anyone, even a knowing and stealthy financial person, to grab the envelope at the office. But how could it have happened at home? Judith and Grace were gone, and no one else came in the house.

Hillary called me at home that morning and asked me to check if it were possible to reach in through the kitchen window to the bags on the counter. I tested the theory, and it was not only possible, it was easy.

Ok, the money was taken between 7 pm and 7 am, and the window in the kitchen seemed to be the point of access. That narrowed the list down to three, Sebastian, the night guard, who I’ve referred to as the happiest man on the planet, Tom, the devout seventh day Adventist gardener or his wife, Martha. If it were Tom or Martha, Sebastian would have to have watched them pad over to the kitchen window and either just let it happen, or collaborate. If it were Sebastian, he knew when everyone was asleep, had the role of walking around the house to check things out, so needed to be by the kitchen in the middle of the night, and knew everyone’s habits. It seemed to be coming clear.

My plan was to wait a week, put another envelope in the bag, and I’d sneak into the kitchen in the dark and wait, stealthily (and hopefully awake) through the night to capture the culprit in the act.

We called Knight Support, the agency that provides security and for whom Sebastian works, and told them of our suspicions. The operations head asked us if anyone else lived on the property. We told him Tom and Martha did, but that it would be both very difficult for them, and we had huge trust in them. He asked where they were from. When we said Malawi, he responded, “That’s all I need to know.” And launched into a diatribe against Malawians, the vehemence and nature of which I’d only seen in movies and footage depicting prejudice a century ago. We told him that it was possible, but highly unlikely given his devout church-going nature and lack of opportunity. “Those Malawians are like that, acting one way and stealing from right under your noses,” he said.

That night, Knight Security had a new super-askari, James, at the door, and sent a local supervisor to bring Sebastian back to the main office. I never got to enact my catch-‘em in-the-act plan.

We’ve thought about this a lot. The initial anger at being betrayed was quickly tempered by putting ourselves in his shoes. If I earned 80,000 shillings a month, or about $850 per year, had a wife and 4-year-old son, and access to $1,700 (the total amount we think was taken, not including the stuff), would I reach through a window in the middle of a long, dark and lonely night? The temptation of two years salary coupled with the need to provide for a family on $75 per month makes it hard to be outraged.

It is the mix of relationship and need that makes easily reconciling this difficult – Sebastian brought his son over one Sunday; he made little bicycle-men for Bodie; and repeatedly listened patiently as I struggled to form sentences in Swahili. He also apparently quietly pocketed money and things that he assessed, probably rightly, that he needed far more than we did.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Camp Redemption

Bloodied but unbowed, I refuse to let those toddlers get me down. Today found some redemption. With Thursday camp being at George and Mie’s house on the beach, I wanted to take advantage of what the kids wanted to do anyway. After the morning singing circle, I passed out an empty jelly jar to each.

The tide was low, leaving countless shallow tidal pools. The kids waded into the tidal pools (each with a nanny) and looked at small darting fish, scurrying hermit crabs, shells, and floating forests of seaweed. Nannies and children chased small fish, wading from rock pool to pool. The exercise, planned for 30 minutes, went for over an hour as kids ran and splashed and filled their jars.

They came up from the beach for snack time, wet, diapers full of seawater, giddy with playing in the ocean, carrying jars with small fish. The arts and crafts activity was construction paper with crayons and stickers in the shape of, yes, a fish! The day was thematically coherent (always essential to a two-year-old), and seemed, for the first time, to fly by.

Monday, June 30, 2008

A Three Hour Cruise...

Nothing to make one yearn for a desk job like hard, grueling labor. Take, say, cattle roping, working an offshore oilrig, or heavy construction. All look pretty cush after three days of three hours straight with 15 toddlers.

Yes it’s joyful to spend time and share in the innocence and play of children blah blah blah. But I am wearing out the little belt holster on my cell phone from checking the time so often. It is astounding the pure elasticity of time from, say, 10:42 to 10:44. Can that really only have been two minutes? We just sang, crawled like crabs and did an art project? In contrast to the Buddhist idea of relaxing into the impermanence of everything, that time is passing and so shall all things, I may well have discovered the one thing that brings time to a clawing, numbing, screeching halt.

So 15 kids – Adler, August, Bodie, Bennett, Clara, Ethan, Hannah, Jessie, Joshua, Juri, Kanto, Marisa, Matthias, Rohan and Sadie. All cute and charming individually. Put them together and I feel like the targeted Piggy in Lord of the Flies.

This week we tried a range of activities: collecting and painting rocks like lady bugs, singing everything from Rolly Polly to I’m a Little Tea Pot, dancing to Aloyce the drummer, and crown-making This is the stuff of college application essays.

Lessons learned from week one at Camp Msasani:
  • Many short activities are needed. The morning is now broken into 8 different segments ranging from circle time/singing to art activities to movement activities, with plenty of free time.
  • Hydrate hydrate hydrate – dealing with toddlers for three hours is, according to experts, comparable to running a marathon. So lots of liquids, carbo-loading, and glucose gel.
  • Have bloody mary’s ready at 11:30 pick-up. It gets parents there on time and is a nice carrot to make it through the morning.
  • Change Ivy League curricula to somewhere address toddler’s mercurial needs. Maybe cut a little Milton or Shakespeare and substitute with something more real world, like how to deal with a screaming two year old in the midst of a temper tantrum because the dog won’t let her grab its tail.
  • Finally, don’t worry if you screw up. Stay just shy of permanent traumatization and you’ll be fine. They won’t remember any of this, because, hey, they’re only two years old!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Camp Msasani

“Desperate times call for drastic measures.”

Preschool ended last week. Little Scholars had an end of semester party, which meant Bodie was buzzing on a chocolate cake sugar high when I picked him up. He was running around manically hugging teachers and unwary kids, saying, as everyone else did, “have a great summer!” I doubt he really understood what this meant. Walking home from school, we passed a goat munching grass on the side of the road. “Have a great summer, goat”, yelled Bodie.

As we were leaving, I was handed his first report card. I had a flash of fear – I’m a dad now and I need to treat this report card with some gravity. In my mind, we needed to have a sit down and celebrate his strengths but also address some issues. We needed to have a man to, well, 2-year-old talk about how he was doing. I remember those talks vividly, and I’ll be damned if he isn’t going to have that same trembling fear at the end of each year also.

(This next paragraph is mostly, rather, entirely, for my mom). According to his report card, Bodie seemed to excel at preschool. In terms of Personal Development, “He is a well-behaved and polite student. He is very independent when playing and picking out the toys of his choice. He enjoys doing many tasks on his own such as finding his own shoes, getting his bag ready for snack time and picking out the color crayon that he would prefer.” (I’ve been working with him in the evenings on picking out crayons, so am glad to see that hard work rewarded.) Here is the room for improvement: “Although he rarely gets in trouble on his own accord, he sometimes gets influenced by the older boys (this trait is hereditary from Hillary’s side.) “When playing with blocks, he can stack 6-8 objects and expresses good eye-hand co-ordination especially while throwing or catching (all those long training afternoons in the backyard are paying off!). He enjoys dramatic play including make believe kitchen (from Grammy) and talking over the toy telephone (goes without saying). He has a wonderful sense of humor, and he “enjoys hugs.” “He is particularly concerned about the well being of the other students – wants to know why they are crying or lets the teacher know if anyone fell down” (I’ll own the compassion part). He shows well developed communication skills and uses them when wanting to express his feelings and thoughts (I’m guessing this one isn’t from me…) And critically, “he uses play dough properly and enjoys molding it”!

All in all, a pretty successful first stab venturing out into the world of critiquing. All that money we’ve chosen to stock away in his therapy fund instead of a college fund looks like it can accrue a little more interest.

It took a day for it to fully dawn on me. No school means, well, no school. So Bodie in the morning, Bodie at lunch, Bodie in the afternoon and Bodie in the evening. This is good, I told myself. I love him. I love spending time with him. He is funny and I get to spend all day with him. The entire, livelong day, every day… Argh!

A drastic measure was needed. I googled, but could find no sleep away summer camps for two year olds in East Africa. I needed another plan. Out of sheer panic, Camp Msasani is being launched as a place for 18-month to 3-year-old kids to congregate and play three mornings a week. Why, if one scrambling toddler is overwhelming, would I want to submit myself to a dozen? One word: reinforcements.

Most toddlers will come accompanied by a parent or nanny. I’ve hired a teacher from the preschool. I imagine that I’ll be able to sit and have a Bloody Mary and issue directives: “ok, you kids, I need you to clear these concrete blocks from the back yard now.”

Camp Msasani (the name of the peninsula where we live) kicks off next week with a dozen registrants, a teacher, a guy who plays African drums with kids, and a fresh stock of arts and crafts supplies. I am banking on the court system here being arduous and arcane, so any liability suits that may ensue will take years to catch up with us.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Let the Comeuppance Continue

Our car was finally received, less the radio, which mysteriously was listed as “not included” in the papers from the Dar Port Authority. My take is that some higher power is suggesting that rather than drumming and swaying to African music on the road, we should pay attention to swaying cars, buses, roaming goats, bicycles, carts, chickens, etc.

While the car is here, it doesn’t have plates, registration papers, or insurance yet. Getting these essential things entails another dive into the muck of local bureaucracy.

So, knowing full well that it is stupid, I have been driving around when I need to. I don’t know what Tanzanian prison is like. I’ve seen plenty of movies with South American prisons and Turkish prisons holding drug mules, and can only guess that those might look like a Four Seasons in comparison. But my thinking is, most of the police here are on foot. What are they gonna do? Run after me? Or call on their radio (which I’m pretty sure they don’t even have) for someone with a car to go after a car with plates… oh wait, there are no plates. I’m sure there are significant disadvantages to having a police force so under funded that they don’t have vehicles, but in this one instance…

Bodie is still surfacing from his bout with stomach flu almost a week ago, and has eaten very little. Getting him plump had been a fervent mission of our housekeeper and our nanny, Judith and Grace. Grace had a prepared a weekly menu of high-carb mush – potatoes with carrots and leeks, or some variation. Each afternoon, they’d each wield a spoon as he’d go racing around. It was almost like a lacrosse game, with each holding a spoon, and Bodie’s mouth the net. And it worked. He got rounder and fuller.

But all the nice rolling little neck jowls and rounded belly that Judith and Grace were so proud to put on him disappeared over the last week. He has become, like his cousins, (and his parents until relatively recently) skinny. He has refused virtually all food for a week. And if anything were ever going to turn me into my food-pushing Jewish mother, this was it. Here Bodie, try this special sandwich I made you, here is chocolate for breakfast, how about this yummy cookie with jelly…

Yesterday, I threw out the idea of pancakes and, for the first time in a week, he showed real excitement. I drove our cute little unlicensed, unregistered, uninsured car up to Slipway with Bodie singing ‘pancakes, pancakes” in back. As only my mother's voice deep in my head could say, he doesn't need to go to school, he's going to eat!"

So focused on pancakes and food actually going in Bodie, I forgot that that’s where Barclays bank is. And where a bank is, police are. As soon as we pulled up, a policeman, rifle slung over his shoulder, beige uniform, black boots and beret, came over. “Where are your plates?” he demanded. I told him they were coming later in the day and I just drove down the road to feed my son. I thought some element of that worked, because we walked away and he seemed satisfied.

After pancakes, and playing at a playground, and looking at boats, so a good hour and a half later, Bodie and I went back to the car. The policeman was still right where we’d left him, standing by the driver’s door. He said, “in this country, this is a serious matter.” I was thinking of saying I was an ambassador, but was unshaven and in shorts, so instead said I’d take the car straight home and not drive. He stared at me for a while, then gazed off in the distance, mulling his options.

Thoughts of how I wished I’d paid better attention to Swahili class to navigate Tanzanian prison danced through my mind. I wondered, who is going to take Bodie to school in the morning. I wondered if I’d be able to blog from prison. After what seemed like many minutes, he said, “I want a soda.”

“I’m sorry?” I said, thinking that I completely misheard him.

“Give me money”, he responded.

I reached into my pocket and pulled out a crumpled 1,000 shilling note (about $1) and he shook it off like a pitcher shaking off a catcher. I handed him a 10,000 shillings note (about $10). He smiled, took it, cautioned again that I shouldn’t be driving, and walked away.

I knew I had been playing a dangerous game, but got out of it for a simple $10. I was no fool.

It was only later, with the retelling of the story to Hillary, and her, compassionate response, “he was a security guard, not police”, with the unsaid, “you idiot”, that I realized while I thought he was mulling his options, he was trying to assess whether I’d be dumb enough to think he had some real standing. He had correctly sized me up.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Anniversary Do’s and Don’t’s

Anniversary Do’s, clearly seen in Hallmark ads or commercials for diamonds, include: romantically gazing into each other’s eyes over a fancy white tablecloth dinner murmuring little loving quips in a loving way, maybe some hugging and effortless swinging of the wife around in a circle on a beach, maybe champagne being raised in a toast with recollections of this day X years ago in which you exchanged vows of devotion in front of family and friends….

Anniversary Don’ts include slim jims, a broken car window, and the ever-present, but necessary for full effect, kid heave-o-rama.

The evening started with great promise. A friend, K, generously offered to take Bodie for the night so Hillary and I could follow the prescription for Anniversary Do’s. She came to pick up Bodie, and as I shoveled him and a week’s worth of diapers into the back seat, where Marissa, her one-and-a-half year-old was strapped in, K asked if he needed a car seat. I figured he could hang on as they weren’t going far. Not wanting to be seen as the type of parent who thinks that his two-year old could simply hang on, I ran to retrieve the car seat, installed it, strapped Bodie in, kissed him good night. He was begging for some keys to play with, just like Marissa had, so K graciously offered him another set of keys to play with. I shut his door and K, shut the door on Marissa’s side.

Instantly, we heard beep beep It’s a familiar and usually reassuring beep beep. The car is locked and all is safe thanks to the magic of Japanese inventiveness that allows you to push a little button and lock all four doors and the rear hatch at once! Marissa had found the lock button on her keys, which weren’t really play keys, but the keys to the car. Both kids were strapped in, safe, like two astronauts ready for blast-off, because that’s the good kind of parents we are.

K was calm and suggested calling the security company as they have an auto service, so would easily be able to slim jim the door open. I called and tried to explain the situation. The emergency operator kept asking me the wrong questions and clearly didn’t understand what I was trying to explain. The tenor and pitch of my voice rising with aggravation might not have been the best way for me to communicate. I ended up demanding someone that spoke English better (which I’m sure was well received). Meanwhile, Hillary, not one for nuances of a phone conversation in a crisis, had pushed the panic button. Five minutes later, the security car, sirens blaring, pulled up.

Five minutes is a long time if you measure it in verses of Old MacDonald. K and I stood outside the back windows, singing at the top of our voices, verse after verse. Bodie and Marissa, strapped in, clapped and moo mooed here and neigh neighed there, enjoying the game.

When the security guards came though, Bodie wanted out. He had had enough of the game and started to cry and reach for Hillary. If you were to examine the evening like an archeologist with various phases, that was the end of the Calmozoic Era. I wanted to break the window and end this, but there was a conference of six security guards standing around the car, talking over each other. They checked the doors. Yup, locked. Lots of gesturing with prying motions, lock picking intimations, and more conversation.

Hillary, seeing Bodie crying, said sternly, “Alfred, break the window.”

I grabbed a large garden hoe, but waited another minute as the conference of security guards poked and prodded the Land Cruiser like a giant acorn squash, to see if there might be some soft points for easy access.

It wasn’t until Bodie was wailing full throttle, reaching for Hillary through the glass, yelling, “Mama!” that Hillary said with an appropriate degree of hysteria, “Break the f#*@ing window!”

Hillary grabbed the garden hoe and raised it shoulder high as if a curveball had been pitched. I had this vision of any trekking guide carefully explaining that when hiking, you never want to get in between a mother bear/elephant/lion/hippo etc. and her cub. I nevertheless stepped in between Hillary and the car and grabbed the hoe. Dangerous a maneuver as it was, I sure wasn’t going to be emasculated in front of six guards and K while my wife broke the window. I was going to smash it.

One of the members of the guard committee had a crowbar and was gently prying a back window. I told him to push and break the window, which he did. Glass pebbles rained down on the driveway. I hopped in through the open window and freed the kids.

Kids released, safely enfolded in mother’s crushing arms, we decided that Bodie going over to K’s house might not be the best thing for him or us right then, so we all went out to dinner at a TGIFridays imitation steakhouse. The restaurant clearly didn’t know they were supposed to have white tablecloths for us. There were crayons on the tables, a playground with legos for kids, and blaring American pop music. Thinking the trauma of the evening was over, Hillary had a gin and tonic at the playground, and we went home.

About the time that I should have been tossing Hillary around in a circle on a beach per protocol, Bodie offered his own version of an anniversary gift with a different type of tossing. At 1 am he heaved (and answered the question that had been in my mind for a few weeks of whether he was really eating the snack I packed for him everyday in preschool, which I was glad to see that he was). He is not a kid to just dabble in things though. He took a measured, metronomic approach. He retched all over his bed at 2 am, ralphed on his clothes and our bed at 3 am, hurled on the new sheets we’d put on at 4 am, and culminated with a good effort pillow and floor-covering heave at 5 am.

So perhaps not worthy of a De Beers ad, this Anniversary actually may be a better real world reflection of how we’ve managed to create cohesion out of two separate lives over the past few years. Anyone can weather a fancy dinner marred only by a soggy profiterole, but we managed to extract two trapped toddlers, wash three loads of laundry and nurse a feverish son, all with coherence and solidarity in approach and a fair divvying of duties. Somehow that makes this anniversary more telling.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A Life Well-Cobbled

I’m trying to learn lessons from our night guard, Sebastian, who I’ve referred to as the happiest man on the planet. He doesn’t seem to let work stress get him down. His job is to be on alert through the night. That is pretty much it. Yet he rides his bike to work each evening with a pillow strapped behind his seat. After he gets here, does a round of checking things out, he settles down, pillow wedged against the wall, into a pretty comfortable fetal-like position. He may be the only askari who is often barefoot. For a better night’s rest no doubt. (We do sleep soundly though as Dexter is on vigilant alert.)

Tonight, at 9 pm, Hillary was reading to Bodie before putting him to sleep, and I prepared and brought out tea for Sebastian. I walked quietly so I wouldn’t wake him. I knew it was absurd as I was doing it, but I still tiptoed. Meanwhile, Bodie is running up and down the hall, screaming, “I’m an airplane, I’m an airplane. Vroooooooooom.” Sebastian snored lightly.

Which raises the question of satisfaction in work. I’ve been motivated for a while to try to create social good, to help others who are improving lives. Here, two months in in Tanzania, where the social need far surpasses anything I’ve ever seen or imagined, I am struggling with where to put my time and energy. Here is my struggle: there is so much need that my experience in social enterprise work, or NGO or project management could be put to good use, and I might even see real, tangible results.

At the same time, if one more person mentions to me that “there is so much opportunity here, it is like the wild west” for business, I’ll wrap my pacifist little fingers around his neck. The implication is that if you're a notch up from comatose, you can just trip on a gillion dollar business opportunity.

I’ve been touting entrepreneurial values for a long time, and this may be the time to truly take a risk and try to start something. I want to contribute and make a difference, but this might also be a time try start a venture that can generate some real revenue (Bodie might top out, stretched on a rack like his dad, at 5’ 8”, so I’m guessing will have limited athletic scholarship options.) It is not a purely black and white decision – the trick is figuring out a business with a sound model that can also do good.

And now – in between things (the expression comes to mind, “when one door closes, another opens, but sometimes there is a long hallway in the middle”) or being in the hallway, I’m wrestling with work/life balance. Rather imbalance. It is all life at this point. And life doesn’t allow you to do work plans, and chart progress against milestones. I have no idea of whether I’m tracking against plan.

I’ve long respected people that assemble certain elements into a cohesive life. This is more of a West Coast approach and decidedly anti-DC career pathing. I’m thinking of those old guys with hairy ears and a straw Fedora, with a business card that says “magician, chess player, trout fisherman”.

So in the immediate future I have a few projects:
  • An assessment project with KickStart, an innovative NGO that focuses on bringing micro-irrigation to small farmers. This has shown to quadruple crop yield and, thereby, household income. 80% of Tanzania is comprised of small farmers, so the need is significant.
  • Working with SolarAid to help them get set up and get going in Tanzania, bringing micro-solar products to off-the-grid rural households.
  • Building a boat. My friend, Mason (pictured with his son, Arlo, who should probably be wearing safety glasses, ready to do some cutting), shipped over a workshop full of tools, and we’re going to build a 15’ sloop. We purchased plans from Devlin Boatbuilding for a boat called a Nancy’s China, and had them shipped over. Now we just need to source some marine grade plywood (well, and then build it.) The thinking goes, if I get to set my own agenda, why not set an agenda that I would have set at age 14, but this time under the auspices of building a “family” sailboat.
Throw in Bodie-time at the beach, and Dexter walks, and squeeze in evenings for Hillary, and an interesting life in Tanzania feels like it is being cobbled together.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Comeuppance in Africa

Comeuppance… I looked it up and it is defined as “just deserts, just punishment, due, retribution, requital, what's coming to one.” It might as well be redefined as “smart suburban American, thinking he can outsmart deeply rooted African culture, learns that he is but a piece of flotsam or jetsam floating in a sea of “I’ll call you back”” or even, “wife earns Academy Award in category of feigned empathy as husband battles the bureaucracy of Tanzania…”

I did think I was savvy and street smart -- whelped on the rocky, rugged north shore of Boston, schooled in the hard suburban streets of Bethesda, jostled on the pre-Giuliani rough and tumble roads of New York City, I thought I was a match for the smiling, tell you what would-make-you-happy-and-get-you-out-of-the-office-quickly rutted roads of Dar es Salaam.

Our cute Nissan X-trail imported from Japan, which trusted agent Paul promised as ours in a mere three to four days, is still at the port. Idiot that I am, I never asked “three or four days from when?”. From a certain rare Tanzanian holiday celebration? From when Paul’s daughter in South Africa finely marries her boyfriend? From Bodie’s valedictory speech at Harvard?

Three weeks later, it is still only three to four days away. I think I saw someone with a blue “Dar Port Authority” baseball cap, windows down, music blaring, peeling out in our X-Trail yesterday. The gods, clearly sitting on Mt. Kilimanjaro, unhindered by any sort of longbearded, jarring wrath from, say, an Old Testament deity looking out for one of his own, are having a good ol’ time.

As recognition of my comeuppance, I am starting on my 12-Step plan:
• I admit that I am powerless…
• I recognize that a greater power, the Dar es Salaam Port Authority, has strength…
• I should have listened to experienced, wiser locals, who laughed at my aspirations of three days…

Being carless, I have gained great learning and humility in walking, walking, walking to buy diapers and wipes. I’ve met people on the road. “Hello, diaper and wipe man,” they call out. My arms, wrapped around plasticized Pampers, wave a feeble hello.

Deep deep inside, I know I’ll find this to be a beautiful lesson some day.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Friday Night Adventures

I doubt it is healthy to have this perspective, but as I was racing down a road near our house at 1:30 am Friday night, a green frog sippy cup clenched in one hand, a tall prostitute in 3” stiletto heels chasing close behind, yelling, “Friend, Friend!”, I thought, this one may be worth writing about.

The evening began normally enough – Bodie and I picked up Hillary at work. Bodie, as he does most nights, raced around Hillary’s office doling out paperclips one at a time to her colleagues. When we got home, he seemed hot, but it could have been from the frenetic paperclip relay race just completed. We realized he was running a bit of a fever, so dosed him with some liquid ibuprofen.

While not listed on the bottle, I would testify in court that the medicine contained significant amounts of methamphetamines. Bodie revved to a hyped-up, limbs flailing, Barney in minutes – “come run with me sing this song I am a dog I am a dog woof woof woof the wheels on the bus go round and round…”

At around 1 am, he started coughing and gagging. As first time parents, any deeply held common sense approach vanishes in a flash. We pulled the lever for the ambulance, a service provided by our security company, convinced something serious was wrong.

A security car, siren wailing, was here within minutes. We raced into it and sped away to intercept the ambulance. When Bodie was pointing at the security guards and counting “one, two, three policeman. Look papa, three!” Hillary and I looked at each other wondering if we should just go home. But we were in it too deeply at this point.

We intercepted the ambulance a few blocks away and transferred over. Bodie was marveling at being in the ambulance and talking with the ambulance driver. Hillary and I looked at each other again – maybe he’ll have another real fit so we don’t look like we’re starting to feel right now…

En route to the clinic, they dropped me off a few blocks from our house so I could run home and get our car. For some reason, Ghuba Road, the street leading to our road, is a red light zone at night. Every night, especially on weekends, a dozen hookers stand by the side of the road wearing skimpy clothing and sashaying whenever a car goes down the street.

I hopped out of the ambulance – lights flashing, siren going, Bodie in awe – and jogged up Ghuba Road. Not many mzungus are out jogging with a sippy cup at 1:30 am, so I got a few looks as I passed by the posing women. One, tall in a red mini dress and 3” heels, seemed to think I was testing them to see who could keep up with me. She shouted “rafiki, rafiki…” and started racing after me at a pretty good clip. I picked up the pace and lost her.

I opened the gate to our yard and ran up. Sebastian our night guard, who had been awakened earlier by the arrival of the siren-blaring security car, was still up and ran over to see if everything was ok. Dexter was barking furiously inside the house.

A quick aside – Dexter doesn’t like Sebastian. He barks at him ferociously every night. Thursday, the previous night, as Dexter, growling with ridge raised, positioned himself between Sebastian and us to protect us, Sebastian kept approaching. Dexter lunged and bit him in the leg. Not badly, but drawing a little blood.

So Dexter is barking inside the house, when he somehow noses open the screen and starts racing around barking. Sebastian screams in fear and cowers behind me, which I knew Dexter would view as more of a threat. I imagine Dexter looking at Sebastian as a menacing shish kabob. I race down the driveway to intercept our lunging Ridgeback, thinking that since I am going to the clinic, I might get a two-fer.

Dog safely ensconced in the house, Sebastian safely back at his guard post, I head off to the clinic.

The IST Clinic is open around the clock, but is only marginally staffed after hours. The nurse told us that they had two serious cases in the exam rooms – evidenced by low moaning and wailing – so asked us to stay in the waiting area. By this point, Bodie is warm, but if he knew how to tap dance, he probably would have. Our instinct was to exaggerate the story somewhat so as not to look like exactly what we were – over-reacting, nervous, new Africa parents.

They send us home with some more ibuprofen. They also gave us a valium-suppository, ostensibly in case he had another set of convulsions, but I think they might have intended it for us.

Friday, May 9, 2008

A Small Victory

The world of work offers innumerable moments of small victories – a milestone achieved, a pat on the back, a deal brought in... Not having these little victories, albeit meaningless, can be difficult. But today there was a small victory.

Like many people, rather than pay twice U.S. costs for a new car, or buy a used vehicle that has been flogged over local rutted roads for years, we chose to import a car from Japan. We’ve seen that 10-year old cars regularly sell here for their original pre-drive-off-the-lot price. Since there are so few new cars here, used cars depreciate little if at all.

We were advised to use Yoshi, who has sold cars to at least five other ex-pats we know here who raved about his service. In an Internet posting-board-deprived world, good service makes the ex-pat word-of-mouth rounds quickly.

Purchasing the car is easy (pictures emailed, money wired to Japan); actually getting the car is the challenge. It was placed on a carrier from Japan a month ago. Again, easy. But getting through the maze of import customs, regulations, tariffs, wharfage fees, etc. requires a clearing agent, specifically, someone who knows how to navigate the rules and which outstretched palms need the most attention.

The agent we started with – me, typically compulsive one month before the car arrived -- took it upon himself to educate the new guy to how things are done here. In short: in business transactions, you are told what you want to hear to make you happy. So a, “I’ll pick that up by the end of the day” gets you off the phone feeling like you’re communicating well, have established good rapport, are moving forward together with a shared understanding, and both of you understand the timeliness involved. That good feeling of being able to manage your affairs in Africa can carry you through the day. Until the end of the day passes. And the end of the next day. And so on. There is not necessarily any correlation between words and action.

It is a business equivalent of the common question, “does this make me look fat?” Words and promises are like little droplets of happiness doled out that dissipate by the end of the day.

After a week of Agent X (I’ll call him) failing to pick up the documents as promised (tomorrow… tomorrow) as numerous unexpected things kept coming up, I was told there was nothing to do until a letter of exemption was signed by the High Secretary of the Department of Agriculture. An equivalent scenario is getting Condoleezza Rice to sign papers so you can bring your car in. Hillary managed to arrange a meeting with the High Secretary of Agriculture to “introduce herself” on behalf of TechnoServe, and oh, incidentally, here are some papers that she’d appreciate having signed. Agent X was working for a colleague of Hillary’s in parallel, so both sets of paperwork should have been ready to be signed. Except that our paperwork wasn’t prepared ahead of time.

With the meeting in a few hours, I asked Agent X to meet me at the TechnoServe offices to try to have the paperwork ready. He indicated that the forms (which are standard blank forms photocopied over and over again since 1964), had to be picked up from an office at the Bureau of Taxation and that would take some time. When we did finally meet, I asked why my paperwork hadn’t been prepared and Hillary’s colleague’s had. He said that it was my responsibility and they did it for her for “good will.” I certainly felt good that there was some good will going on somewhere, because he then sat and just watched as I tried to fill in the paperwork in time for the meeting.

I told Hillary that night that I wanted to switch agents. She rolled her eyes, supportively. Later, she told me that she had told her office administrator that I was in for a little lesson on living in Africa.

I called four agents in the Tanzanian Yellow Pages. I was told by two that I would have a quote by the end of the day (how that made me happy), and by another that the manager would get right back to me (more happy). As the sun set and we finished dinner, I sat at the table, hitting the refresh button on my computer over and over, disbelieving.

A friend offered a recommendation for her agent, who I called. He spoke in a language I could understand: PowerPoint -- using bullet points! We needed:
• 3 bills of lading, signed on the reverse
• Supplier’s invoice
• Export Inspection from Trading Country
• Letter of Exemption
• Authorization letter for clearing agent

Costs were likewise detailed! Yea - costs known in advance!!

We arranged to meet the next day. He showed up! (Normally you wouldn’t need a sentence indicating that– but he did it; he showed up!) Our little X-Trail (this is a picture from Japan) is in capable hands with Agent Paul and I have no doubt he’ll navigate the labyrinth of clearance customs within a few days.

More importantly, I got to gloat that I didn’t receive my comeuppance a la Africa (at least, not yet).