Thursday, March 27, 2008

Zanzibar - Nungwi

We headed to the northern tip of the island to spend two nights in a cottage by the beach. En route, we stopped at Maruhubi ruins, a palace built in the late 19th century by the sultan ruling Zanzibar. It was amazing to see the extravagance of this palace that was built and used so recently (late 1800’s). According to the man guiding us, it was the sultan's retreat to spend time with his 99 wives (oy vey!) The guide kept expressing his exuberance for the king’s carnal prowess – he had these wives massage him in these rooms, and he had other wives smooth oil on him in these rooms….” Hillary was neither impressed with the sultan’s prowess nor with the guide and walked off with Bodie toward the beach.

We continued driving an hour north, viewing incredible white sand beaches stretching into clear turquoise water. But in order to see the beaches from the road, one peers through dilapidated thatched shacks, abandoned rusted vehicles, or past piles of accumulated rubbish. It is a jarring tension.

We arrived in the town of Nungwi and found our cottage. The tide was out and it left a vast swath of shallow, knee-deep clear turquoise water stretching out a half-mile. Women, wrapped in brightly colored khangas were barely visible in the distance, walking through the waters well off shore scanning for small fish, shells or octopus.

Nungwi is a small fishing village. Dozens of dhows were perched on planks in the low tide, or leaning on their hulls, many in various states of disrepair. Boats ranging from 40 foot wood hulled vessels looking much like primitive houseboats, to small canoes carved out of a single log with lashed on outriggers, had men swarming over them, hammering, chinking, and repairing them. The boats all looked like they’d been repaired with any available wood for many decades.

We spent the day swimming in turquoise water, passing Bodie back and forth as he “swam” from Hillary to me and back again, and lounging. One insight emerged at the end of the day: lovely pale Irish-origin skin is not a good match for the strong sun of an equatorial beach. For some reason, Hillary didn’t seem to appreciate my flattery that she is now both lovely and perhaps useful at night, not unlike Rudolph the Reindeer.

When I dropped Hillary at work on Tuesday morning, a colleague of hers had just returned from climbing Mt. Neru, a trek that he woke up for at 2 a.m. to summit the mountain and climb back down before sunset. He asked how our break was. The most harrowing thing we could muster was a tricky rollover maneuver from back to stomach on a somewhat tenuous hammock.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Stone Town

Zanzibar has a bizarre mix of compelling and sordid history and astounding natural beauty. The culture is Muslim, strongly influenced by over a thousand years of traders and travelers - Persians, Arabs, Indians, Portuguese, British and African.

For centuries the Arabs sailed with the Monsoon winds from Oman to trade primarily in ivory, slaves and spices (clove, cinnamon, cumin, ginger, pepper and cardamom.) The sultans that ruled Zanzibar used it as the central hub to rule much of East Africa. The legacy of the slave trade is still very present on the island, with the slave trading markets designated as historical sites.

At the ferry terminal in Stone Town, we hired a taxi to get to the hotel. The driver drove for at most five minutes before parking and guiding us on a 15-minute walk through alleys to reach the hotel. We learned that you don’t really need to use taxis to get around the town as they can only circle the periphery.

Stone Town is a place of serpentine streets, circular towers, elaborately carved wooden doors, raised terraces and beautiful mosques. It feels much like a medieval European town, but the roads are more narrow, allowing only pedestrians, bikes and motorbikes, and the city is more decrepit. Bodie quickly became adept at hearing the motorbikes behind us and pressing up against the alley walls to avoid being run over.

We stayed at a remarkable hotel that had been renovated by an American couple that has since split. Known for years eponymously as Emerson & Green, the hotel is a renovated 17th century building with towering ceilings, Moorish arches everywhere, day beds festooned with pillows and hanging tapestries, and old wooden stairs with each step starting at mid-calf, climbing up five stories.

After dinner, we climbed the stairs to our room on the top floor. Our canopy bed was draped with netting. A fan circled slowly in the center of the bed. The Muslim holiday Eid-e Milad is the celebration of Mohammad’s birthday. Coincidently, it fell on that Thursday evening, as marked by the full moon. The room was in a corner with windows on two sides, high up in the city. Rows of jewel colored red and green small windowpanes topping the larger windows glowed with the full moon. It was magical to look over the city in the moonlight and listen to the sounds of the muezzin chanting a call to prayer echoing from the mosques below.

We woke and went to the hotel’s Tower Top restaurant. It is an open-air restaurant perched on the second highest roof in town offering a panoramic view over Stone Town, the Indian Ocean on three sides, and dhows sailing in the distance. Bodie remarked on the birds flying below us.

We spent the day meandering through Stone Town, the many small shops selling locally made crafts, games of bao (an east African version of mancala with seeds or shells placed in scooped out holes), carvings, spices, and brightly colored khangas. Hillary and I tried to distract Bodie when passing potential toys, but the storeowners were faster and more clever than we were, circumventing us to show him a tin safari truck with an opening top and a drum. Leaving either behind was not an option.

Beating the drum, Bodie led us parade-like through the town, announcing our arrival. We wandered through an old stone fort, built in 1698. It is mostly ruins now, but has high stone walls topped by castellated battlements, with many small shops and an open-air theater. We wandered through the main market in town, teaming with local residents haggling for vegetables, spices, and fish of every size, shape and color,

I find it difficult to describe the varied mixture of sights – the women covered in long jibabs and brightly covered headscarves, many men in embroidered skullcaps or long robes, people greeting each other with “salaam aleichem”, winding alleys, but also run down with buildings, trash piled in corners, and most people evidently very poor.

That night, we climbed our five flights of stairs weary but exhilarated.

The Trip to Zanzibar – Easter Weekend

It is virtually a given: traveling to beautiful locales requires frustration. Without a little struggle, one simply does not deserve to walk a desolate beach or swim in azure waters. We had decided to spend four days in Zanzibar for the long weekend. This is usually a snap trip from Dar – a quick hour and a half boat ride. Hillary was meeting with a team from on Thursday from noon to 4 pm, an important meeting for her focus on expanding entrepreneurial activity across Tanzania. However, the last boat from Dar to Zanzibar leaves at 4 pm. Hillary was caught between a real opportunity at work with a significant funder who was departing Tanzania shortly, and a cranky husband eager to get started with the vacation from, well, his hiatus. While I didn’t envy her position, I knew that if I showed too much empathy, we’d have left a day later. I did the arms folded across the chest, foot tapping, “I’m fine – you just have your meeting” routine pretty gracefully.

The taxi driver, slated to pick us up at 3:15, the very last minute so that Hillary could finish her meeting and we could squeak on to the 4 pm boat departure, still hadn’t arrived by 3:30. I tossed Bodie into the car and raced to Hillary’s office. A very stressed Hillary, slightly cranky Bodie and I grabbed a taxi, expedited the generally protracted negotiation process for a trip, and raced to the Ferry terminal in downtown Dar.

It quickly became clear that mzungu’s last minute efforts at navigating the ferry system were familiar to the locals and presented a clearly identified opportunity to quickly move cash from our pockets to theirs. A broadcast message must have preceded our arrival for as soon as the taxi pulled up, we were swarmed by men grabbing our bags and racing us to the ticket window. At least a dozen men were the only ones to know the secret way to get a ticket, even though the boat was ostensibly sold out, and get us on the boat that was leaving in minutes. Hillary had two people who were “helping” her at the ticket window, I had two additional porters “helping” with two bags while I held Bodie. After Hillary’s helpers miraculously managed to secure tickets (with much consternation and reporting on how difficult it had been and how lucky we were), we tipped them and raced after the porters with the bags.

The boat horn had sounded, and the boat was loaded. As the ticket checker looked at our tickets, he asked for passports to verify that we were indeed residents. My passport has yet to have the official resident stamp, so the ticket checker said I’d have to return to the ticket window to pay the nonresident rate, which happened to be more than double what we’d already paid. The boat whistle, the last boat whistle of the last boat leaving for the day, sounded again. I reached out and passed a wad of bills to the ticket taker. The porters raced onboard with our bags. When I went to hand them the equivalent of $4.00, they said, “that is small money, we need big money.” I may be cheap by nature, but I know that $4.00 is a decent day wage here, much less fair compensation for 10 minutes work. They said they needed $10 each for carrying two bags, and stood by Hillary and Bodie. I wanted nothing more than these two extortionists to be gone, so forked over another $4.00, fuming. They left, saying “hakuna matata”, which translates to “no worries”.

The boat was a relatively modern high-speed catamaran. We grabbed seats outside on the rear deck and watched as it pulled from the dock and Dar started to recede behind us. Suddenly the boat slowed. Dar stopped receding and kept kind of bobbing right behind the stern. The boat was moving at a crawl. The catamaran is designed to be very stable in the ocean at speed, but wallowed in the rolling sea swells. The smell of diesel wafted across the crowded, windless back deck. What was supposed to be a quick 90-minute trip to Zanzibar took almost four hours. As we saw the lights of Zanzibar and knew we were soon to land, I was holding Bodie, who suddenly was warm, damp, and sticky where I was holding him. A volcanic diarrheic poop was the appropriate and perfect coda to the journey.

Thursday, March 13, 2008


Last Sunday evening, Hillary, Bodie and I drove to a shopping area near us called Slipway. The sun was setting and we weren't sure if anything would be open, but we had promised Bodie a smoothie, so were aiming for the juice bar there. We arrived and saw it brimming with people in a way we'd never seen.

Dar has been a central trading hub for the Middle East, Europe and Asia for hundreds of years, and the Slipway that evening seemed to reflect this tradition. On Sunday evenings, they hold a regular mini-fair, complete with popcorn, cotton candy, and face painting. A dozen Arab men clustered at small tiled tables smoking shisha from hookahs; women clad head to toe in black burkas chased children around the playground; Tanzania women, wrapped in bright oranges, reds and yellows also chased children. Myriad families strolled around the playground overlooking the ocean, appearing to represent all parts of the world with palettes of clothes ranging from colorful African garb to sleeveless Europeans to a range of monochromatic Muslim outfits, weaving a multicolored tapestry. We overheard children yelling in a dozen languages -- Swahili, Arabic, Hindi, French, English, and many we couldn't identify -- as parents waited in line for bright pink clouds of cotton candy.

Bodie coveted (a kinder description than "threw a tantrum") a toy ride-on truck he spied. As we tried to pull him away, a bearded man smoking from a hookah, breathed out a plume of smoke and waved him over to take the truck. His boy had already dashed elsewhere.

It felt like this cacophony of languages and swirl of colors could equally have been happening hundreds of years ago. Bodie got his smoothie and got to play with the truck. Hillary and I keep talking about how this experience will affect him. For him, jostling for space on a jungle gym with a view of the Indian Ocean and the passing dhows, surrounded by Arabs, Indians, Masaai, and Europeans, will be his version of a normal childhood.

Learning Swahili from Bodie

Bodie returned from preschool yesterday singing a new song. He sang "simama kaa, simama kaa" while standing and then throwing himself onto the ground repeatedly. He then bounced around the room yelling "ruka ruka ruka"! It had a bit more tonality than I am conveying, but he was bouncing like Tigger and singing as loud as he could.

My teacher in Swahili class challenged us to learn five new verbs every day, which is a truly daunting task. Today, I looked smart with three new verbs I wrote on the blackboard:
Simama – stand up
Kaa -- sit down
Ruka – jump!

Thank you Bodie! In my class of two, I was valedictorian for the day.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Evening Ritual

Rituals provide comfort in their familiarity and repetition. The big ones, Christmas or Passover or the high holidays come to mind quickly as meaningful markers of life, but the smaller, less noticed rituals are every bit as nourishing and form the fabric of our daily lives. Having now stepped off the work treadmill for a few weeks, it is easier to notice some of the rhythms and patterns of the day in a way I didn’t before.

An evening ritual is starting to unfold, beginning with a bath for Bodie and me. For some reason, Bodie fights if I want him to take a bath, so the ruse is that we are going to wash the “little guys”, two rubberized, pop-art looking figures with interchangeable heads, hands, feet and legs. We both know that “washing the little guys” is code for taking a bath, but somehow it is acceptable way of taking a bath – it is a job that needs to be done.

A brief segue – genetics is a powerful force, and seeing how our 2-year old is bound by certain rules helps me to accept some similar bounds in myself. My dad is constantly doing – working to fix something, to clean something, to take care of some task. He ascribes this need to be doing to his Germanic ancestry. (My mom, touting her Russian heritage, is more than content to sit back and watch him dervish away. Now Hillary and I, but that’s for another entry…) This constant doing is deeply coded into my dad’s make-up and is central to how he creates meaning in the day. I, too, am wired this way. Now, with very little to accomplish, I still draw up to do lists, but they are short. Yesterdays list was as follows:
To Do – March 8, 2008
1) buy diapers
2) Ummmm… put them away in the closet
3) Feed Dexter (this wasn’t really on the list, but I needed at least three tasks to make the day feel complete.)

And I feel some need to check these tasks off as a measure of the day. When I’m really desperate now, I’ll add “brush teeth” or “shower”, two slam dunk tasks. We’re starting to see a sad little glimmer of this in Bodie. He is happiest if he is watering plants, opening a gate, helping to carry a package, or washing the little guys. Some day we hope to take advantage of this and put him to meaningful use so he can earn his keep. He/my dad/I can’t help ourselves.

Back to the evening ritual - We go into the large bathtub off our bedroom and, using the handheld shower, Bodie sprays the little guys, while I try to surreptitiously spray him down, soap him up and rinse him off. My turn comes after Bodie is clean and the two little guys are well scrubbed. There are invariably a few clever songs, with lyrics like “we are washing the little guys, the little guys, the little guys.” While the idea of a daily bath may smack of a certain hygiene freakishness, by the end of each day, the kid is chafing as he walks, having become a ball of sweat with accumulated layers of dirt, mud, and small sticks.

After chasing a naked Bodie running down the hallway and corralling him into pajamas, we go outside to greet Sebastian, our night guard. The sun has just set, and, after the heat of the day, the evenings are cool and welcoming. A gentle breeze rustles the palm and papaya trees in the garden. Sebastian loves Bodie, and yells for him whenever he sees him come out the door. Sebastian, tall and rail thin, is as far as we can tell, the happiest man on the planet. He bustles with exuberant energy, is eager to talk in English or monosyllabic Swahili for our benefit, or talk about his four-year-old son, named Praygod (at least, that’s what we think his name is). Last week, after being knocked off his bicycle by a car, he threw himself on the ground to do push ups to demonstrate he was fine and ready to work.

Sebastian has made magical little bicycle men, one for Bodie and one for Praygod, out of sticks, wire and brightly colored fabric. Bodie spends hours wheeling his little bicycle man around, the little wire legs pumping up and down as the wheels go around.

Each evening Bodie races outside to sit on the steps with Sebastian. Sebastian sings, “are you ok Bodie?” and Bodie responds, “I’m ok! Are you ok Sebastian?” Over and over and over.

After putting Bodie to bed, Hillary and I make Sebastian a thermos of tea with two teaspoons of sugar, and bring it out to him along with two pieces of bread and a couple cookies. We stand under the stars in the garden and Sebastian tests us on words – pointing to the moon to see if we can name it (mwezi) or to the stars (nyota), or flowers, birds…

Like many ex-pats, we live behind tall walls, which can feel a bit isolating. As a consequence, we have assembled our own inter-wall community: Tom, the gardener, has gotten off work, Martha, his wife, is there as well. As we bid a goodnight to Sebastian, Tom and Martha come out, sit on the steps with him. We go inside and hear the sounds of their talking and laughter as we prepare dinner.

Thursday, March 6, 2008


The generator was running all afternoon. Most houses here have back-up generators that are designed to kick in when the electricity cuts out. It is a little unfathomable after living in the U.S., but here, power failures are not just common, they are expected to occur on a regular, even daily, basis. (One of the less intelligent purchases we’ve made since getting here is an electric clock/radio. It blinks 12:00 continually.) This afternoon’s blackout seemed to last much longer than usual and I couldn’t understand why.

Think of those Visa ads – things moving at high speed in perfect synchronicity, transactions blazing along, cash or credit cards being swiped. This concept is a world away from Tanzania. There is no credit. None. And you don’t realize how something as mundane as a credit card, much less very basic credit, facilitates life.

The electricity had cut out as we had run out of money on our prepaid electric meter. One can’t even get a month’s credit on electricity here! Same on a cell phone. You prepay and enter a code into your electric meter or cell phone and it registers the new amount, which you then draw down.

This is a cash society. So for Bodie to go to preschool, we pay 1.1 million Tanzanian schillings per trimester. All in advance in cash. The largest denomination in Tanzanian currency is 10,000 shillings, which is about $8. So we have to bring envelopes of money to the preschool. No credit means that most of the things that we habitually do with a credit card – gym membership, restaurant dining, large appliance purchases, or here, hiring a security guard - require payment of cash in advance. Credit cards are virtually nonexistent, except at some of the large hotels, which will charge you a 5% premium.

No credit means that when you buy a car or a house, you do indeed buy the car or the house with full payment up front. Even renting a house, as we’ve done, requires a full years payment up front. So a $2,000 per month rent means you need to front $24,000.

I’m not an economist by any means, but it seems so intuitive how essential basic credit is to foster any sort of middle class. The basics of car or home ownership are completely out of reach of almost anyone, let alone the basic consumer goods that drive the U.S. economy that are purchased on credit. Transactions we take for granted are greased by credit.

Our next purchase will be modeled on Bolivia in the 1980s or Zimbabwe today. We’ll push our new giant wheelbarrow filled with cash so we can join a gym.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Swahili Class Day 1

Bodie and I started off the morning along parallel paths. We each had a new school to attend and new life lessons to master. Bodie focused on navigating the mores, customs and hierarchies of an established social group, albeit one aged 1 ½ to 3. I aimed to learn some rudiments of Swahili. I prepared two backpacks: Bodie’s (a Thomas the Tank Engine backpack) with a snack, change of clothes and extra diapers for his sojourn at Little Scholars Preschool; mine (Timberland) with notebooks and pens for day one at the Tanzania Swahili Language School. I can only judge by how we both emerged from our mornings, but I believe that our paths quickly diverged. While Bodie was skipping around, singing songs, I was utterly bewildered and bleary.

In D.C., before leaving, I was told repeatedly how easy Swahili is to learn. I imagined a language with, oh, maybe a few dozen nouns and a handful of verbs. In my mind, that would be easy to learn. This morning, we spent almost three hours doing nothing but greetings. We haven’t gotten to things like nouns and verbs. Initial inquiries include: hujambo? Hajambo? Habari gani? habari yako? habari ya asabuhi? salama? Habari ya kazi, Karibu… And after learning the 421 ways of saying, “how are you”, there are an equal number of ways to respond, “I’m fine.” We were told that it is customary in Tanzania to exchange greetings before engaging in a conversation. However it appears that it is customary to engage in four hours of greetings before asking for the time.

I want (now maybe wanted) to learn Swahili as it is one of the most widely spoken languages in Africa, used in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and some in southern and central Africa. If I’m going to work and live and integrate here, I think it’s important to be able to converse at a basic level.

There is nothing in the world to make one feel more stupid than trying to learn a brand new language. You don’t realize how you take for granted that you can greet someone and say what your name is, until you can’t. And while our teacher, Mariam, is very patient, I may well have tested her when I was still struggling with “I’m fine” after two hours of intensive coaching.

My Swahili notebook is already starting to look like the notebooks I had in junior high. Although this time, the crossed off names marked with skulls and crossbones aren’t passing crushes, they’re the well-wishers who told me how easy Swahili would be to learn.